Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Baja California Gov. Eugenio Elorduy emerged from a two-hour summit here on Friday pledging cooperation on a range of shared issues, including border security, pollution and immigration.
But the big question on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border after Schwarzenegger’s first visit to this sweltering agricultural and industrial hub of about 850,000 people was this: What took them so long?
“This was long overdue,” said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, “given that one-third of the electorate in California is Latino.”
“There should be a lot more high-level meetings like this,” added Shirk: “A cynic might say the reason there haven’t been is his Spanish is limited to ‘Hasta la vista, baby.’ ”
There was little cynicism to be found Friday, at least among officials, as the two governors and key cabinet members met for what was billed as a working session.
Schwarzenegger flew into the capital of Baja California from Los Angeles at noon, gushing with praise for his Mexican peer, whom he described as a “close friend” who had “taken me under his wing.”
Against a backdrop of a wall painting of field workers picking cotton, Schwarzenegger told more than two dozen reporters that “California and Mexico share a border, a friendship and a partnership that benefits both of us.”
“We also know we face some shared tough challenges that we must solve together,” he said.
“I have great faith we can tackle these problems as we continue to build a partnership and keep communication open between our two states,” he added.
Elorduy agreed, saying, “Economic prosperity and security in the region rely on close cooperation between both states.”
Although many issues facing the two states are really the within the purview of federal authorities, California and Baja California officials said they hoped they could craft possible solutions to some common problems and then lobby their respective national governments to take action.
The pledges of strengthening ties for mutual benefit seemed to set the stage for a closer, high-profile relationship between Elorduy and Schwarzenegger, who has been criticized for failing to reach out to Mexico during the two years he’s been in office.
The warm welcome from his Mexican counterparts also could help repair Schwarzenegger’s image in Mexico, which took a beating after his recent comments in support of civilian border patrols and his efforts to tighten the border against illegal immigration.
Schwarzenegger’s effort to repeal a law allowing illegal immigrants to have driver’s licenses is believed to have influenced Mexican President Vicente Fox’s decision to cancel a trip to California last fall. The governor has said he would veto another bill passed by the Legislature earlier this month that would allow undocumented residents to have modified driver’s licenses.
Other issues on the table Friday included controlling border gangs and drug cartels, promoting tourism and the use of water.
Mexican and California groups in July sued the U.S. government over a water conservation plan that would stop billions of gallons of Colorado River water from seeping each year into an aquifer that supplies Mexicali’s wetlands and farms.
The suit said the project would hurt Baja California’s economy and environment by capturing the water that leaks from the 65-year-old All American Canal, which carries river water to the Imperial and Coachella valleys.
On Friday, Schwarzenegger said he hoped to meet with Fox for the first time “some time in the near future.”
Responding to questions from Mexican reporters Friday, Schwarzenegger tried to clarify what he called a “misconception” about his views about Minutemen patrolling the U.S. side of the border.
Though reiterating his general support for sealing the border and of civilian patrols, he took a hard stand on civilian patrols carrying firearms.
“I never believed in armed Minutemen,” he said. “That’s my belief. They are not meant to harass or threaten with arms.”
Schwarzenegger also said Friday that he supports a proposal by President Bush to create a guest worker program that would temporarily legalize millions of illegal workers.
Elorduy did not comment on the proposal.
Schwarzenegger may have charmed government officials here, but he has yet to win over Latinos on both sides of the border, said Nativo Lopez, president of the Mexican American Political Assn.
As a special election approaches in November with four Schwarzenegger-backed initiatives, the governor is “shoring up segments of the electorate where he is weakest: Latinos and African American communities.
“The real question,” Lopez said, “is why didn’t he meet with this governor two years ago?”
In Mexicali’s bustling downtown sector, business owners interviewed at random shared similar mixed feelings about the governor.
Leaning back in a chair in Barberia Imperial, barbershop owner Jorge Burgos shook his head in dismay and said, “Schwarzenegger doesn’t like Mexicans, especially those trying to take advantage of an opportunity to better their lives in the United States.
“On the other hand,” he added with a smile. “We love his movies.”
Coin shop owner Jorge Garcia Salazar put it this way:
“As an actor, we love him; as a governor, he’s not so good. He’s close-minded about Mexicans, which has caused him to lose support among Latinos here and in California.”
But Salazar also said, “It’s good that he’s here today, listening to a Mexican governor. That, I hope, will help establish stronger ties all the way up to President Bush and Fox.”
To hear the governors tell it, Schwarzenegger and Elorduy could not agree more.
Their news conference at the governor’s office ended abruptly after Elorduy turned to the former champion body builder and action movie star and said, “Let’s make a movie together!”
“Yeah,” enthused Schwarzenegger with a play on the title of one of his hit films. “We’ll call it Twins II.”