If Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision to speak out forcefully against illegal immigration seems familiar, it is. The governor is using a well-worn tactic to seize public attention amid plummeting approval ratings, analysts and others said Friday.
Speaking to reporters, Schwarzenegger on Friday likened the armed Minuteman group that has roamed the Arizona-Mexico border looking for illegal immigrants to a “neighborhood patrol” that has succeeded where the government failed. A day earlier, he called their work “fantastic” and chastised the Bush administration for failing to secure the border.
Schwarzenegger also had said Thursday that a Spanish-language billboard characterizing Los Angeles as a Mexican city was “divisive,” a comment echoed by conservative groups. Last week, the governor said the U.S. should “close the borders” -- a remark his staff said was imprecise and for which he later apologized.
The governor outraged Latino activists and his Democratic opponents with his comments, but he was treading an often effective path, analysts said. Republicans have used California’s permeable border as political fodder for years. And Schwarzenegger was elected in 2003 after demanding that people in the state illegally not be issued driver’s licenses.
“It wasn’t just Republicans who were upset that [former Gov.] Gray Davis signed a bill granting licenses to illegal immigrants,” said Elizabeth Garrett, director of the USC-Caltech Center for the Study of Law and Politics.
But by highlighting the Minuteman group this week, Garrett said, Schwarzenegger may have unnecessarily aligned himself with a fringe element and given Democratic opponents, already in political high dudgeon, another tool to use against him.Administration officials scoffed at suggestions that they had a calculated plan to buoy sinking poll numbers by attacking illegal immigration.
Schwarzenegger, they said, was simply addressing a controversial issue, billboards for KCRA-TV Channel 62 that show the words “Los Angeles, CA” with the “CA” crossed out to make the ads read “Los Angeles, Mexico.”
When he made the comment praising the Minuteman group, he was responding to a question, as he was when he said earlier that the border should be closed.
Rob Stutzman, his communications director, cautioned against over-analyzing Schwarzenegger or his intentions. He said the governor remains committed to the multipart agenda he unveiled in January for changing state government.
“So any issue that he speaks on that may be popular to the public is somehow pandering to poll numbers?” Stutzman said. “That to me is an absurdity.”
Schwarzenegger stood by his comments Friday: “I think the most important thing to note is I am a champion of immigrants,” he said at a news conference. “I promote immigration. I am an immigrant myself. I think it’s extremely important that we do it in a legal way.”
He also said the federal government should step up patrols. “Their job is to secure the borders, and they have not done their job. And when the government -- the state or the country -- doesn’t do its job, then the private citizens go out and it’s like a neighborhood patrol.”
Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, said the governor may well be speaking from the heart: Many legal immigrants are resentful of undocumented immigrants.
But Cain added a caveat: Many of Schwarzenegger’s top advisors worked for former Gov. Pete Wilson, who rode the issue of illegal immigration in the mid-1990s by campaigning for Proposition 187, which denied state services to illegal immigrants but which was later overturned by courts.
“They have played this card before,” Cain said. Focusing on immigration, Cain added, “probably gets people away from obsessing on his defeats. It’s possible this is a conscious strategy, but I also believe this is true to his heart.”
The polarizing debate over Proposition 187 has been blamed for sinking the Republican Party in California and allowing Democrats to dominate Sacramento -- until Schwarzenegger came to power.
Assemblyman Dave Jones, a Sacramento Democrat and former advisor to former U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, said Friday that Schwarzenegger is invoking the border in a conscious effort to shore up his approval ratings -- which have fallen 20 points since January -- and distract Californians from his troubled policy agenda.
“That’s the consistent theme here,” Jones said. “There’s a deliberate effort on his part -- I think out of desperation with regard to what’s happening to his poll numbers and public response to his initiatives -- to shift the debate away from the things he’s trying to do in California, because people are rejecting those things.”
In January, Schwarzenegger unveiled a wide-ranging government overhaul that included merit pay for teachers, automatic curbs on the state budget, sweeping changes in the public pension system and a new way of determining voting districts. Under pressure from unions and Democrats, Schwarzenegger has retreated from or been pushed to compromise on each of the issues.
Schwarzenegger also is facing a Republican Party upset about repeated conciliations with Democrats on key issues and about the influence of liberals, such as his wife, Maria Shriver, over policy and the direction of the administration.
Schwarzenegger, political analysts said, can use the issue of immigration -- one the public understands well -- to get people in his party energized and on his side. One senior aide told the governor recently: “At least when you make a gaffe, make one that jumps you 10 points in the polls.”
Indeed, it’s not just conservatives who believe illegal immigration is a problem. A Los Angeles Times poll taken just before the 2003 recall election showed a majority of Californians disagreed with Davis’ decision to allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses. The poll found 63% of likely voters disapproved of the law, including 68% of self-described moderates and 40% of Latinos
But Wayne Johnson, a longtime GOP political consultant, said he worried that Democrats could turn Schwarzenegger’s remarks into a political liability by alienating Latino voters.
“I am personally an advocate for going overboard in making sure that everything we say and do recognizes the future of the Republican Party in California relies on Hispanic voters,” Johnson said. “Who is buying the new cars? Hispanic surnames. Who is sending their kids to college? Hispanic surnames. Who is starting new businesses? Hispanic surnames.”
Shaun Bowler, a professor and California government expert at UC Riverside, said the Republican Party is putting intense pressure on elected officials to turn more conservative on immigration because of the Minuteman Project and other groups. Schwarzenegger may be able to appease his fellow Republicans at small political cost, he said.
“You get various groups that will complain about this, but voters don’t so much,” Bowler said. “And so it’s an easy shift in policy for him.”
But on Friday, some of the most forceful criticism of Schwarzenegger’s comments came from Latino officials and activists, who said he is out of step with most Californians and a political opportunist.
“I don’t think the governor is a racist. I don’t think Pete Wilson is a racist,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres.
“I think they are encouraging scapegoating of people in this country for political purposes,” Torres said, “and I think that is the lowest form of political behavior.”
Times staff writers Peter Nicholas and Andrew Wang contributed to this report.