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A big voice in a heated debate

Fresno's flamboyant mayor has been an unexpected advocate for illegal immigrants.

June 24, 2007|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — He's an ex-actor with a down-home drawl who spouts sayings about meat on the chicken and hay in the barn and cowardly politicians running like scalded dogs.

He's a born-again Christian who once got Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to pray with him for a proposition expanding after-school programs.

He's the son of migrant workers, a former quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, a Republican, and a conservative.

All in all, Fresno's Alan Autry, mayor of the largest city in one of the richest agricultural regions in the world, might not seem a likely candidate to lob grenades about illegal immigration at the U.S. government, Mexican authorities, the business community -- in fact, at virtually everyone but the immigrants.

With his trademark flamboyance, the 54-year-old Autry has poured himself into the debate, vowing to "stand in the doorway" if immigration agents attempt mass roundups of illegal immigrants in Fresno. He rails against "the two-faced hypocritical crap" that he says is the hallmark of U.S. immigration policies. And he thunders about "the coalition of greed" that he says lures undocumented immigrants over the border in the first place.

Autry is hardly the first to suggest that illegal immigration is encouraged with a wink and a nod for the cheap labor it yields. But few local officials have made the point with such passion, color -- or, Autry's critics say, such a knack for publicity.

Autry, who calls himself "just an old sinner saved by grace," offers no immediate solutions -- a failing often pointed out by his critics. Instead, he launches into a vivid litany of horrors: illegal immigrants dying in the desert, exploited in the fields, languishing with illnesses. And he vexes many by insisting that Americans own up to a communal guilt for the immigrants' plight.

"Confession is good for the soul," he says, "and on this issue, it's absolutely essential for the nation."

Last month, he delivered his annual State of the City speech to a lunchtime crowd of business leaders, declaring that his "coalition of greed" includes the nation's chambers of commerce.

With the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce hosting the luncheon, some jaws dropped -- but he persisted.

"It was a coalition that promoted and finally succeeded in institutionalizing illegal labor as a core component of our nation's economy," Autry declaimed as diners toyed with their desserts. "The coalition of greed knew they were creating a permanent underclass, but so what? It was more profitable that way."

With the dramatic flair he brought to the role of Southern lawman Bubba Skinner on TV's "In the Heat of the Night," he acted out an imagined dialogue between U.S. economic interests and "Jose," a Mexican reluctant to cross the border.

"Come on, Jose, blow that stop sign," Autry cajoled. "Nobody's writing tickets anymore. Smell that good smell drifting across the border from our side? That's the smell of hope.... And bring your wife too. We're real busy, and somebody's got to raise our kids."

Al Smith, the Chamber of Commerce's chief executive, later said he was shocked by Autry's suggestion that local chambers across the U.S. have conspired to exploit illegal immigrants.

"I have no earthly idea where all that came from," he said, adding that Autry should focus more on the city.

"He thinks big things and dreams big dreams," Smith said, "but sometimes you just want to say, 'What about the potholes?' "

Autry, who will term out in 18 months after serving as mayor since 2000, has heard that before.

"It's not that potholes aren't important," he said, "but immigration is our defining issue -- and we're blowing it. Our policies will rank right beside slavery as a stain on our history."

Autry is no stranger to the grand gesture.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he shrugged off fiscal objections and urged homeless evacuees to make a new home in Fresno, even traveling to the Gulf Coast to deliver a personal pitch.

After San Francisco briefly legalized gay marriages, Autry invited hundreds of "traditionally married" couples to the steps of City Hall for a mass renewal of their vows.

Two years ago, Autry used his State of the City speech to call for a two-year moratorium on immigration -- an idea derided by newspaper columnist Ruben Navarette Jr., who wrote that "the mayor of Fresno asking for a moratorium on immigrants is like Col. Sanders asking for a moratorium on chickens."

To Autry, though, it makes more sense than a wall -- unneighborly and ineffective -- or the current congressional bill, which he calls "chaos and madness masquerading as immigration reform."

Harking back to his brief football career, Autry would opt for a "strategic timeout" in which officials would shut legal entry points -- where, he contends, most illegal immigrants cross for a price. Autry envisions envoys from Mexico and the U.S. crafting a humane policy while working to clean up the corruption that Autry claims is rife along the border.

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