An Illegal-Immigration Irony

Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

Don't look now, but the leading Republican candidate in the Oct. 7 gubernatorial recall election may once have been an illegal alien.

I don't find that too surprising, much less distressing, but it will surely drive some vociferous nativists in California's body politic to even greater distraction. Here they spend all their time and energy warning about a Mexican takeover of the Golden State, and California's first governor who was once an illegal alien may turn out to be from Austria.

I refer, of course, to Arnold Schwarzenegger. The bodybuilder turned movie actor remains, according to the polls, the best hope that California's GOP has of taking the governorship if state voters decide to oust Gov. Gray Davis next month. Schwarzenegger has managed to maintain that lead despite being jostled by a crowded field of would-be replacements for Davis that includes Sacramento veterans Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, and state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks).

Schwarzenegger has done it with a well-funded campaign that is tightly controlled and carefully scripted to avoid tough questions on complex issues like immigration. But lately his campaign staff has taken to evading questions not just about immigration in general but specifically about the former immigration status of their own candidate.

Those discomfiting questions were triggered by a series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News. An investigation by the newspaper found that Schwarzenegger, who immigrated to the United States in 1968, may have violated U.S. immigration laws on at least two occasions.

The first time was shortly after he entered the United States on a visa that allows athletes to train and compete here and receive expenses. But, according to his own biography, he also received a weekly salary as a consultant to a bodybuilding-industry entrepreneur. The second time may have been in the 1970s when Schwarzenegger had a temporary work visa but also started a bricklaying business. Several immigration attorneys and experts interviewed by the Mercury News said that in both instances Schwarzenegger may have been in technical violation of U.S. law, making him -- horror of horrors -- an illegal immigrant.

The Schwarzenegger campaign has refused requests from the Mercury News and other news media for copies of the candidate's immigration files. "I have clean immigration papers," the actor said in response to one query. "I have done everything legally."

Maybe. Maybe not. But if Schwarzenegger's immigration status does wind up being a bit murkier than first advertised, he is just one of millions of recent immigrants to this country who have faced similar problems thanks to the vagaries of U.S. immigration laws and the notorious incompetence of the federal bureaucrats who enforce them.

Indeed, the technical nature of the violations Schwarzenegger may have committed is probably why the Mercury News' stories have not caused a bigger stir. After all, it's not as if the newspaper found out the actor had crossed the border hidden in the trunk of a Volkswagen.

Of course, if Schwarzenegger had gotten into this country by sneaking across the U.S.-Mexico border, his oft-stated claim that he understands the plight of the many poor immigrants living and working in this state illegally might ring truer than it does. It could also win him a few more votes from those immigrants from Mexico and Central America who are new U.S. citizens. And it might even convince Latinos that Schwarzenegger really is different from those Republicans who see California's immigration problem not as too many immigrants but as too many Latino immigrants.

That is the image problem Republicans have had in California since 1994, when former California Gov. Pete Wilson -- now one of Schwarzenegger's top campaign advisors -- cynically used Proposition 187 to win a tough reelection campaign.

Wilson's victory proved pyrrhic, of course. First, the courts tossed aside 187, which would have barred illegal immigrants from getting public services. Then the anti-Mexican tone of the campaign on behalf of the initiative angered thousands of new Latino voters.

That's why Wilson and other GOP leaders in the nation's biggest state are now looking to a political neophyte -- and possible onetime illegal immigrant -- for deliverance from their status as an endangered political species in California.

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