Saturday, August 27, 2005

California's "foreign" relations make tricky footing

What a difference a few years can make. In 1998, Gray Davis was elected Governor with a deluge of Latino votes. Latinos were eager to repudiate Pete Wilson's perceived immigrant bashing in the 1994 campaign when he saturated the airwaves with blurry images of dark figures climbing a fence and running. "They keep on coming …" the voice-over warned. Wilson won the election and became an icon of nativist prejudice against Mexicans in the opinion of politically engaged Californians.

So when Davis took office, almost his first act was to travel to Mexico to meet with President Ernesto Zedillo and pledge friendship as well as win "points south of the border, where California exports about $12 billion in goods annually," according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Zedillo paid a return visit to Sacramento in May 1999 to address a joint session of the state legislature. He was greeted with shouts of "Viva Mexico!"

"This is a symbolic closing of the gap that had developed for the last six years under the previous administration," said Harry Pachon, an expert on Hispanic politics and president of the Claremont Graduate University's Tomas Policy Institute….

"The trip gives Zedillo an opportunity to connect with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in California. They send home more international currency than Mexico receives from tourists, " Pachon said.

Fast forward to 2005. Yesterday the leader of the California assembly, Fabian Nunez, a native Spanish speaker who is representative of California's new Latino power, visited Mexico -- and stuck his foot knee deep in controversies of his own making. According to the LA Times Nunez has called on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to seal the border, pointing to deaths among desperate people trying to cross and pointing out that Latinos in the US face backlash from whites who fear undocumented immigrants. His call was not popular.

But to many Mexicans, the demand for cheap labor and illegal drugs by Americans on one hand, and the demand to seal the border on the other are at best a contradiction — and at worst, hypocrisy.

One woman told Nunez that this contradiction was captured in a scene of the movie "Crash," which recently opened here: The affluent Sandra Bullock character tells her long-abused Mexican maid: "Want to hear something funny? You're the best friend I have."

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger, sensing a chance to turn an issue back on Democrats who have tormented him for months, has now announced that he opposes sealing the border.

If social security is the "third rail" of national politics, scorching anyone who touches it, immigration policy is the third rail of California politics. So long as this country looks like wealth and opportunity to hungry people south of the border, while the US wants those people as cheap labor to exploit, large-scale immigration, legal and "illegal," is going to continue. The only actual "solution" to the "problem" would be development in Mexico and Central America that spread wealth created in those countries fairly among their citizens. That would stop the seemingly unstoppable suction from the wealthy north. Since US politicians wouldn't even dare advocate the only "solution" likely to work, the "problem" of people migrating to where they can survive and even thrive is likely to continue and politicians will likely continue to stumble around it.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and politician Beatriz Paredes stand as the Mexican national anthem is played. (Eduardo Verdugo / AP)

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