Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto thanked California’s leaders Tuesday for welcoming immigrants from his country — even those who came illegally — as he capped his first official trip to the United States.
California’s policies, which include tuition assistance at public universities and drivers’ licenses for immigrants who are in the country illegally, are a “recognition of human dignity,” Peña Nieto said in a speech to a joint session of the California Legislature.
“I want to thank you for everything you have done favoring migrants,” he said in Spanish, with simultaneous translation provided in English.
Peña Nieto’s address, much like the rest of his two-day visit, was marked by warm exchanges with Gov. Jerry Brown. Both leaders portrayed California as willing to strengthen their relationship even as the immigration policy debate remains stalled in Washington.
“We’re not waiting here in California,” Brown said as he introduced Peña Nieto in the Capitol. “We are joining hands with Mexico….There is so much we can do together.”
The day’s events marked political shifts in California, where Latinos have wielded increasing power.
Two decades ago, Californians voted to block illegal immigrants from public services, a decision later voided by federal courts. Eight years ago, when Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor, seven GOP lawmakers boycotted a Capitol speech by then-Mexican President Vicente Fox.
But now, one in five state lawmakers is Latino. And on Tuesday, Peña Nieto received a standing ovation from Democrats and Republicans alike. Only Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks) refused to attend the event, in protest against the jailing of a U.S. Marine in Mexico on weapons charges.
“California has really come a long way,” said Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville). “I think California is sending a message that we recognize the valuable contributions and the labor and sacrifices of immigrants and that we want to integrate them.”
In place of debating ways to cut off services, lawmakers have begun discussing the possibility of enrolling immigrants in the country illegally in public healthcare. Meanwhile, Republicans are fretting that their lack of Latino support has dimmed their party’s future in the state.
Brown spent four days in Mexico City last month, meeting privately with Peña Nieto and signing a series of agreements intended to boost trade and strengthen efforts to combat climate change.
Mary Nichols, who chairs the California Air Resources Board, said officials on both sides of the border have begun collaborating on new environmental plans. A global summit on climate change is scheduled for December in Peru, and Nichols said California and Mexico may jointly introduce a proposal there to curtail air pollution.
“The opportunities are enormous,” she said.
Before Peña Nieto’s speech, Mexican and California officials gathered for lunch at a historic Sacramento mansion used for state events. Diners enjoyed “the bounty of the Sacramento Valley,” including heirloom tomatoes and chicken, according to the menu.
A local artist created a painting of an eagle and a bear, representing Mexico and California, as a gift for Peña Nieto.
During a toast, Brown said California and Mexico have enjoyed a special relationship.
“The past is only prologue,” the governor said, “to an even brighter future in the days and years ahead.”
Brown said it made sense for Peña Nieto to visit California on his first official trip to the U.S., calling the state “the leading edge of the United States.”
Protesters were gathered across the street from the event, calling for the release of Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, a U.S. Marine who has been jailed in Mexico since March for entering the country with three firearms. Tahmooressi has said he crossed the border accidentally. Mexican officials say they will let the judicial system run its course.
Donnelly helped organize the protest and signed a letter with other Republicans that Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) gave to a member of Peña Nieto’s staff.
“Sergeant Tahmooressi made an honest mistake and should be allowed to return home as quickly as possible,” the letter said.
Times staff writer Melanie Mason contributed to this report.