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Easy Target, Cheap Politics

May 02, 2005

His approval rating sinking and his agenda stalled, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger apparently has decided it's time to regroup. Unfortunately, instead of reverting to the bipartisan governor who just last year crafted compromises over cigars, he's keeping the tough-guy act. He has found a new group to rail against that he knows will prove less popular than teachers and nurses. Enemy numero uno is now illegal immigrants.

The governor of California has every right to be frustrated with this nation's dysfunctional approach to immigration. The United States relies heavily on undocumented workers while paying lip service to the idea that they are not welcome, a surreal contradiction that imposes any number of burdens on local and state governments. Schwarzenegger, in our view, has taken the wrong position on one of the classic dilemmas facing state governments -- whether to issue driver's licenses to undocumented workers.

But the governor's recent utterances on immigration cannot be described as honest policy expressions -- they seem more like a desperate ploy to capitalize on the prejudices and fears of others. Schwarzenegger's talk-radio embrace last week of the "Minutemen" in Arizona was truly bizarre. Saying that the armed volunteers who have been patrolling the border with Mexico for the last month have done a "terrific job," he all but invited them to come to California. What's next: Will the governor encourage vigilantes to combat street crime?

Schwarzenegger also asked a TV station to remove a billboard reading "Los Angeles, Mexico" on the grounds it encourages illegal immigration. We know that he has a better sense of humor than that, and he knows better than to start censoring advertising. And as someone born and raised in the shadow of the Third Reich, he should also know better than to be fanning this anti-foreigner frenzy.

Schwarzenegger, who earlier in the month carelessly said that the nation should "close the borders," is the governor of a state in which one out of every four residents is foreign born. Yes, there is a distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, but stimulate enough backlash and that distinction disappears.

Schwarzenegger, the supposed moderate Republican, is staking a position to the right of President Bush, who at least says the right things about overhauling immigration policy -- regain control of the borders, devise a guest worker program -- even if he never acts. Forget cigars. Schwarzenegger, incredibly, even criticized humanitarian groups who put water in desert crossing areas, saying it "invites people to come in here illegally." No, governor. They will come anyway. But perhaps one less person will die.

The federal government needs to implement some rational immigration policies, and the governor of California should be prodding it to do so. The kindest explanation for the Minuteman movement is that its frustrated members can't find any other way to get Washington's attention. But California's governor is a Republican star. He can. Yet Schwarzenegger said he's never raised the issue with Bush. Maybe that's because the governor, until his recent fall in the opinion polls, didn't think it was that much of a crisis.

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