SACRAMENTO — Calling the nation's borders dangerously porous, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday praised the private "Minuteman" campaign that uses armed volunteers to stop illegal immigrants from crossing into the U.S.
Schwarzenegger said in a radio interview that the federal government is failing to secure the border with Mexico, and he cast the hundreds of private citizens who have been patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border since April 1 as a popular response to government inaction.
"I think they've done a terrific job," Schwarzenegger said of the "Minuteman" volunteers, who plan to expand to California in June. "They've cut down the crossing of illegal immigrants a huge percentage. So it just shows that it works when you go and make an effort and when you work hard. It's a doable thing."
The governor added that, "It's just that our federal government is not doing their job. It's a shame that the private citizen has to go in there and start patrolling our borders."
President Bush has denounced the Minuteman volunteers as vigilantes.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) expressed surprise that Schwarzenegger would be "praising efforts by untrained volunteers to patrol the borders. The best course ... would be to add an additional 2,000 border patrol agents."
The leader of a Mexican American group called the governor's comments "shameful" and "nothing short of base racism."
"I think we're seeing the real Arnold Schwarzenegger. The mask has now fallen," said Nativo V. Lopez, state national president of the Mexican American Political Assn. "Those of immigrant stock should have no illusions about what his real sentiments and feelings are toward them."
Just last week, Schwarzenegger and his aides sought to clarify his statement to a convention of newspaper publishers that the nation should "close the borders." Before his speech was over, an aide told reporters that Schwarzenegger had meant to say that the U.S. should secure its borders -- not shut them down.
Schwarzenegger has frequently sought advice from former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican who used the issue of illegal immigration to fuel his reelection campaign in 1994. Schwarzenegger also has hired several former Wilson staff members, including his chief of staff, Pat Clarey.
An organizer of what is being called the "Minuteman Project," Chris Simcox, said he welcomed Schwarzenegger's endorsement.
"It's gratifying to see that elected officials are responding to the will of the people," Simcox said in an interview Thursday.
He said there are about 15,000 volunteers who have committed to patrolling the border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The group is also incorporating, assembling a staff and opening a national fundraising campaign, Simcox said. He added that he planned to call Schwarzenegger.
Volunteers may carry firearms if they choose, he said, but they obey all local laws. Their practice is not to apprehend people but to report instances of illegal crossings, he said.
"We don't involve ourselves in taking the law into our own hands," he said.
Margita Thompson, the governor's press secretary, said: "At this point, the governor does not oppose" the group coming to California.
As far as the charge of racism against the governor, she said: "It's not racist to ask the federal government to enforce its laws. Everyone should be united in wanting to protect our national security."
In his interview with KFI-AM (640), the governor said he was deeply troubled by illegal crossings and what he described as an inadequate federal effort to tighten borders. He said he was especially disturbed by footage he had seen recently on Fox News showing "hundreds and hundreds of illegal immigrants coming across the border."
Schwarzenegger said the nation is sending the wrong signal by making water available to migrants as a convenience.
Humanitarian and religious groups, such as Humane Borders and No More Deaths, provide water for immigrants crossing the border. Federal wildlife officials have provided water stations in the desert for animals but have been criticized for not providing enough for people.
Said Schwarzenegger, "What we're doing basically is, by not really securing the borders, we're saying: 'Look, here are the various water stations. Here are the places where you can cross the borders. Here is where we're going to help you.' The whole system is set up to really invite people to come in here illegally, and that has to stop."
Enrique Morones, president of the Border Angels, an immigrant rights group, responded to the governor's comments. "I assure you, nobody is coming here for the water, and the stations we have set up by various organizations is a humanitarian effort.
"We don't respond to Arnold Schwarzenegger; we respond to a higher authority. We're a nonpolitical, humanitarian organization."