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Immigrant issue likely to follow mayor

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa embarks today on a nine-day mission to El Salvador and Mexico ostensibly to promote trade and coordinate the fight against violent international gangs.

Nowhere on his itinerary is any mention of the largest point of contention between the United States and Mexico and Central America: the northward flow of illegal immigrants.

Yet even though the mayor has no authority over federal immigration policy, he is sure to be asked his opinion simply because he is a leading Mexican American politician on his way to becoming a national figure. And with dozens of journalists ready to record his every word, aides are counseling him to answer directly.

“As much as I want to talk about economic development, trade, investment [and] tourism, there’s no question that there’s going to be a real strong effort to move it away to immigration,” Villaraigosa said in an interview last week. “I’ve said, ‘Hey, I’m prepared for that. I welcome it. I recognize it’s an important issue. It is, however, not the only issue.’ ”

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Villaraigosa has a ready answer to the inevitable questions about immigration: The United States, he says, has a right to enforce its laws and secure its borders but also must provide a pathway to citizenship for those who have lived here, paid taxes, worked hard and learned English. Part of the solution, he also believes, lies in fostering more investment in Mexico.

Even that may not satisfy his foreign audiences.

Mexicans, who make up the great majority of illegal immigrants in this country, largely feel that current U.S. immigration policies are unjust and hypocritical -- that Mexicans are welcome to come here to work as long as they remain in the shadows.

Villaraigosa’s election as mayor two years ago drew limited press coverage in Mexico’s capital. Reaction to his victory was a mix of pride and curiosity among many on the street who had never heard of him but who were pleased that one of their own had become mayor of a major American city.

His profile is expected to rise during this visit. The mayor’s press office has fielded 40 interview requests from journalists in the region with questions about trade, relations between Los Angeles and Latin America, and a U.S. plan for 700 miles of new or improved fencing along the border. Villaraigosa and Mexican President Felipe Calderon both oppose the border fence, and they also agree that illegal immigrants in the U.S. should have a way to earn legal status.

Political analysts widely agree that Villaraigosa, a third-generation Angeleno, is smart not to dodge the trip simply because of his Mexican ancestry.

“If you run and duck and bob and weave, you’re going to raise questions about your character,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who served as a spokesman and attorney in the White House under President Clinton. “But if you take it head-on and never forget where you came from, in the long run people are going to say, ‘Gee, I trust that guy.’ ”

Villaraigosa and his aides, concerned that the immigration issue could eclipse his trade and public safety objectives, intend to stay on message wherever they go. Mexico and El Salvador, they will remind all comers, are robust trading partners of Los Angeles and California.

Mexico, in particular, offers a wealth of import and export opportunities for businesses north of the border, a message Villaraigosa will emphasize in meetings with airline executives, manufacturers, government officials and others in his visits.

Mexican trade passing through the Los Angeles area totaled $3.2 billion in 2006, a conservative figure that does not even account for goods trucked over the border. Mexico was the area’s 16th-largest trading partner.

Mexico also has been the leading importer of California goods for the last decade, buying $19.6 billion in products in 2006.

“Our countries’ past, present and future are inextricably intertwined,” Villaraigosa said. “We’ve got to focus our efforts on what we do to enhance that.”

Those interconnections have a dark side as well: the rise of transnational gangs.

Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, who is joining the mayor for part of the trip, will tackle that issue when they meet with Salvadoran President Tony Saca on Wednesday in San Salvador. Bratton is expected to sign an agreement with his Salvadoran counterparts to exchange information and officers as a follow-up to joint police meetings held in Los Angeles about three months ago.

Authorities on both sides of the border say they must combine forces to fight violent narco-gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which formed two decades ago in the immigrant neighborhoods of MacArthur Park west of downtown Los Angeles and has expanded into an international network with as many as 50,000 members in other parts of the United States and Central America.

Salvadoran police officials said they appreciate Villaraigosa’s overtures but question whether he can do much to help solve a crisis that requires action by President Bush and Congress.

Still, they called the meetings with Villaraigosa and Bratton a step in the right direction, noting that Saca also is expected to inquire about investment prospects for Salvadoran entrepreneurs and the welfare of Salvadorans living in Los Angeles.

“I emphasize that this will not be a meeting for doing public relations,” said one Salvadoran government official involved in security matters. “The Salvadoran government has great expectations in the meeting. Remember that we have a lot of interests in Los Angeles and the government is conscious about that.”

Villaraigosa will spend the majority of his trip in Mexico City, where he will join leaders from the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce in a campaign to link L.A. businesses with Mexican distributors, wholesalers and buyers.

He will urge the heads of Aero Mexico and Mexicana airlines to expand service to Ontario International Airport (he’ll make the same pitch to Taca Airlines in San Salvador).

In addition to a private dinner with Calderon, Villaraigosa will meet with legislative leaders as well as with the ministers of tourism, communications and transportation, and the secretary of the economy.

In Guadalajara, he will announce plans for Chivas de Guadalajara and its Major League Soccer team in Los Angeles, Chivas USA, to invest in youth programs in L.A.

Leon, the birthplace of Villaraigosa’s maternal grandfather, will be the last stop, featuring a tour of the city and then lunch with former Mexican President Vicente Fox.

The trip will be Villaraigosa’s second trade mission since taking office nearly two years ago. Last fall, he led 50 business leaders and city officials on a 16-day trip through East Asia. This trip is more modest in scope, but the mayor said it makes good financial sense for a city that has growing economic and cultural ties with its southern neighbors.

“The best thing I can do is to do my job,” he said, “and this [trip] is key to a mayor with a portal to the east and the south.”

duke.helfand@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Sam Enriquez contributed to this report from Mexico City. Correspondent Alex Renderos also contributed from El Salvador.


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