LOS ANGELES – Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backed a federal plan to build a border fence between San Diego and Tijuana. This week, he said walling off hundreds of miles of the California-Mexico border is a strategy from the Stone Age.
It is not the only example of his complex — and sometimes shifting — views on illegal immigration, an issue that has become especially volatile in recent weeks with mass protests around the country by immigrants.
Schwarzenegger's complicated stand reflects both California's immigration politics and his own political vulnerability, as he seeks a second term with his approval ratings in the cellar.
Where California's governor stands on immigration is closely watched, both because the Austrian-born movie star is the best-known immigrant in U.S. politics, and because California has more illegal immigrants than any other state — an estimated 2.4 million, more than the entire population of Nebraska.
In the 1990s, Schwarzenegger supported a ballot measure to deny illegal immigrants many basic services, including public schooling and non-emergency health care. Today, Schwarzenegger says the fight over illegal immigration is at the borders, "not in our schools and not in our hospitals."
Recently he stressed that the economy needs "a free flow of people" to thrive; he also embraces the Minuteman border-patrol movement, which warns of a nation "plundered by the menace of tens of millions of invading illegal aliens."
The governor's "schizophrenic view" mirrors divisions among the voters and within Schwarzenegger's own party, said independent pollster Mark DiCamillo.
As a GOP candidate in a state where only about one in three voters is registered Republican, Schwarzenegger needs to lure Hispanics, a traditionally Democratic-leaning group and California's fastest-growing voting bloc.
But he also must take into account the state's business interests, particularly the multibillion-dollar agriculture machine — a powerful political force that relies on a steady supply of low-priced immigrant labor.
In addition, he has to consider GOP conservatives who want a border clampdown.
"There's a great deal of frustration in the Republican ranks right now about the fact that the Republican leadership — whether Arnold Schwarzenegger or George Bush — is not making it a priority to close the border to illegal immigration," said GOP consultant Karen Hanretty, a former chief spokeswoman for the California Republican Party.
Shortly after taking office in 2003, Schwarzegger repealed legislation enacted under his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, that would give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
The governor, himself a naturalized U.S. citizen, has said he favors a temporary worker program, but has said little about how such a plan should work. He does not support blanket amnesty, and has said he thinks it is impractical to consider deporting millions of illegal immigrants.
While the governors of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas have shifted more money, equipment or personnel to help the federal government secure the border and contend with illegal immigrants, Schwarzenegger has asked Washington for help but has not marshaled substantial state resources at the border.
Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson said the governor has laid out a consistent proposal on immigration, but stressed that ultimately it is Congress' job to work out the details. She said the governor considers fences of use in some instances, coupled with increased patrols and surveillance.
The governor is "doing everything he can to pressure the federal government to provide a comprehensive solution," she said.
One statewide survey Thursday ranked immigration as the most important issue in the state, overshadowing even education. But a survey released the same day by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only two of 10 Hispanics approve of the governor's leadership.
This week, Schwarzenegger took steps to make an impression with the Hispanic community. On Monday, he made a point of saying how troubled he was by anti-Hispanic threats against Bustamante and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He has also endorsed the mayor's plan to take control of city schools, an issue that has strong appeal in Hispanic communities.
His campaign has also recently hired a media representative who speaks Spanish.
And yet his caution was evident in an appearance just days after a half-million people jammed Los Angeles streets to protest a threatened federal crackdown on illegal immigrants. Schwarzenegger met dozens of Hispanic business leaders near Los Angeles and talked at length about the economy and small businesses, but he didn't say a word about the protest.