California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa thanked President Ernesto Zedillo here Tuesday for helping defuse Proposition 187, saying the Mexican leader played a key role in scuttling the controversial state measure that denied benefits to illegal immigrants.
"As leader of the state Assembly, I say President Zedillo had great impact in defeating Proposition 187," Villaraigosa told a news conference after he and a state delegation met the Mexican chief executive. Zedillo's visit to California in May "pushed the process" that eventually invalidated most of the measure, the speaker said.
Villaraigosa's declarations were perhaps the clearest sign yet of California's radical change in relations with Mexico and of the rise of a new phenomenon: cross-border politics. Once a distant neighbor, the Mexican president has become a prized ally for California politicians eager to court the Latino vote.
"The emergence of cross-border coalitions and issues shows the advent of a whole new era in U.S.-Mexican and Mexico-California relations," said Denise Dresser, a visiting fellow at the Pacific Council think tank in Los Angeles.
The meeting with Zedillo was the centerpiece of a four-day visit to Mexico by Villaraigosa, a Los Angeles Democrat who is trying to promote economic and political ties between California and its southern neighbor. He is also considering a run for mayor of Los Angeles.
A senior Mexican official who attended Tuesday's meeting said Villaraigosa told Zedillo that the latter's trip to California was "decisive" in invalidating Proposition 187.
"He gave thanks on behalf of Mexican Americans," said the official, Deputy Foreign Minister Juan Rebolledo.
"I was surprised he was so explicit," Rebolledo added.
Villaraigosa told reporters that Zedillo's statewide visit was crucial because it generated an outpouring of positive feelings and publicity. He added that the presence of the Mexican leader pushed Gov. Gray Davis to promise he would "never be a party to an effort to kick kids out of school."
That statement was the first indication that Davis would not support the main provisions of Proposition 187, a state referendum approved in 1994 by nearly 60% of California voters. It barred illegal immigrants from attending public schools and receiving social services.
The Mexican president responded to Villaraigosa's declarations Tuesday by breaking into applause, said Raul Hinojosa, a UCLA professor in the California delegation.
Since taking office in January, Davis has greatly strengthened ties with Mexico, which had been sorely strained by what Mexicans perceived as the anti-immigrant attitude of former Gov. Pete Wilson.
But Davis faced a dilemma with Proposition 187. The governor personally opposed the measure but said he felt bound by voters' wishes to continue Wilson's appeal of a federal court decision that had ruled much of the initiative unconstitutional. In April, Davis decided to submit the issue for court-sponsored mediation.
Last week, he agreed to a settlement that abandoned the appeal.
Dresser, a political scientist, said Villaraigosa's statements reflected the growth of cross-border politics, which has been manifest in such novelties as Mexican politicians campaigning in California to capture the approval of immigrants who wield influence back home.
"NAFTA has just accelerated the process of silent integration" of the two neighbors, she said, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Dresser said Zedillo didn't overtly contribute to the demise of Proposition 187. But his visit, which emphasized rapidly increasing trade ties between California and Mexico, "led many to believe the benefits of doing away with 187 far outweighed the negative consequences."
Villaraigosa said in an interview Tuesday that he is seeking alternatives to propositions like 187 to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into California.
One such idea, he said, is a new program that combines donations from Mexican Americans and funds from the western state of Jalisco, a major source of immigrants to California. The money goes into an economic development fund to start small businesses in the towns the immigrants come from.
Villaraigosa also said that Mexican Foreign Minister Rosario Green had expressed interest in launching a program to allow Mexicans to work temporarily in jobs in the United States. But, he added, the minister did not discuss specifics of such a plan, which would require U.S. federal approval.
California growers have said they face an acute labor shortage and have become increasingly dependent on undocumented immigrants.
Agricultural groups such as the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno are lobbying hard for an expanded guest worker program, but resistance from farm worker advocates--who argue that the shortage would disappear if farmers raised wages and improved housing--has been strong. Last year, the U.S. Senate approved a major expansion of the existing guest worker program, which is rarely used in the West because farmers say it is unwieldy, but the legislation failed in the House.
In his meeting with Zedillo, Villaraigosa also urged that this country's government-controlled airlines, Mexicana and Aeromexico, award a $6.5-billion contract for new planes to Seattle-based Boeing Co., which manufactures aircraft in Long Beach.
Villaraigosa and Mexican officials said the airlines would examine competitive bids. But the California speaker said Zedillo reacted positively to his support for Boeing.
The Mexican president responded with "a big smile," Villaraigosa said. "He said Mexico was very interested in this proposal."
Times staff writer Nancy Cleeland in Los Angeles contributed to this report.