SAN FRANCISCO – As congressional conservatives press for tough-medicine steps to halt illegal immigration, another Republican spent this week hugging newly naturalized immigrants and enthusiastically hosting Mexican President Vicente Fox.
Himself an immigrant, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is charting a different political course from conservatives in Washington as he seeks election to a second term this year. Schwarzenegger is emphasizing the contributions immigrants have made, and the value of relations with Mexico — not a hard-line border lockdown.
It's a pragmatic approach in a border state where Democrats dominate, Hispanic voter registration is on the rise and the GOP is still scarred from old battles on immigration.
"He is trying to deal with immigration not just from the loud voices on the left and the loud voices on the right, but to find a place where you can deal with the whole breadth of the issue," said Matthew Dowd, Schwarzenegger's chief campaign strategist.
Schwarzenegger advocates tough border enforcement, and at one point last year, he embraced the Minutemen militia border-patrol movement.
But he has raised the sharpest questions of any border governor about President Bush's plan to send National Guard troops to the Mexican line to back federal border-control efforts. He has refused to commit his National Guard until the Bush administration answers questions about the logistics, duration and financing of the deployment.
While differing with the president on some points, he actually is aligned more closely with Bush and Senate Republicans on immigration than with House Republicans.
The House passed an immigration-reform bill in December that makes illegal presence in this country a felony, mandates fences along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border and provides no path to legal residency or citizenship.
A different approach was approved by the U.S. Senate on Thursday, including more border security funds but also a guest-worker program and the possibility of eventual citizenship for many illegal immigrants.
On the same day the Senate voted, Schwarzenegger met with Fox in Sacramento. saying, "Mexico and Californians have a great relationship." Earlier in the week, he traveled to San Francisco to address an audience of 1,100 newly sworn U.S. citizens, saying he "never felt prouder than when I became an American citizen."
Democrats will choose a gubernatorial challenger to Schwarzenegger in the June 6 primary; Schwarzenegger is unchallenged on the GOP side. State Treasurer Phil Angelides, who won the state Democratic Party endorsement for the post April 29, is running against another state official, Controller Steve Westly.
It's been 12 years since voters ignited a national movement on illegal immigration by approving Proposition 187, which would have stripped illegal immigrants of most state services. The courts struck it down, but fallout from that fight looms large here anytime politics and immigration collide.
In backing the proposition, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson "wiped out Republican chances for building a base among Latinos in California," said Phil Trounstine, who was communications director for Gov. Gray Davis, the Democrat ousted by Schwarzenegger in 2003's recall campaign. "He drove the Latinos into the arms of the Democrats."
"Republicans in California have seen what happens on the statewide scale if they lean too far to the right on this issue," said Trounstine, now the director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University.
"Schwarzenegger, it appears, is determined not to repeat that mistake," Trounstine said. "It's a difficult fence to straddle, because his own base is split on the issue."