With tension flaring on the U.S.-Mexico border over the illegal crossing of thousands of young immigrants from Central America, Gov. Jerry Brown said after meeting with religious leaders here Tuesday that he would support additional shelters for the minors in California.
“Certainly I’d do everything I could to make sure California will do its part to shelter any young children that are in need of protection,” the Democratic governor told reporters after meeting with José Horacio Gómez, the Mexico-born archbishop of Los Angeles, and several other religious leaders. “There are already a number of young immigrants, or young refugees, in Ventura, and I certainly would support additional shelters to deal with the particular immediate challenge we have.”
The image of Brown, a former seminarian, conferring with clergy in Mexico’s capital city reflected the intensity of the border crisis here, but also a decades-long shift in California’s approach to immigration.
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Twenty years after Proposition 187, California’s voter initiative – later overturned by the courts – to restrict state services to undocumented immigrants, California’s Latino electorate has become increasingly influential. Brown has signed bills making undocumented immigrants eligible for driver’s licenses and public college financial aid.
The private meeting between Brown and religious leaders, lasting about 90 minutes at a business club in the city’s exclusive Polanco District, followed two days of increasingly pointed rhetoric from the governor about the border crisis. In fewer than 48 hours in Mexico, Brown criticized Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s ordering of 1,000 National Guard troops to the border, and he appealed to politicians to adopt the “call of all religions to welcome the stranger.”
Brown acknowledged Tuesday that a 2008 federal law giving protection to unaccompanied immigrant minors is “obviously attracting people, many young children,” but he said violence and poverty in Central America is also motivating children to leave. Brown said claims made by minors under the 2008 law, which gives them access to immigration hearings and delays deportations, “should be examined and looked at, looked into, in a fair way.”
But Brown has not taken a position on a $3.7 billion proposal by President Barack Obama to address the crisis, a plan that likely – and controversially for many Democrats – would accelerate deportations of unaccompanied minors. The governor said he is “not in a position to make congressional commentary on that bill.”
Brown said Obama “does have the obligation to enforce the laws of the United States, which also include laws regarding refugees, and it is an excruciatingly difficult set of choices that he faces, and I would recommend very careful steps, and to call upon the Congress, both parties, to work through some more decent, humanitarian solutions.”
The border crisis has been a diversion for Brown, who said little about the situation ahead of his trip. He previously described the issue as primarily a federal responsibility and planned to focus talks in Mexico on trade and the environment. But days before leaving California, Brown hastily arranged his meeting with the religious leaders, and he used public interest in the border crossings to herald the state’s overall “very sympathetic” treatment of immigrants from Mexico.
“I think because of our proximity and our history and also our very sympathetic policy both to ... Mexico and to the plight of people who have struggled to get here from Mexico, we are in a very good position to forge very close and productive relationships,” Brown said when he arrived in the country.
Mexican government officials with whom Brown has met praised the state’s adoption of the driver’s license and student aid bills. Eruviel Ávila, governor of the state of Mexico, thanked Brown through an interpreter for the “support he brings to our brothers.”
The atmosphere for a California governor in this metropolis was far more tense just 15 years ago, when then-Gov. Gray Davis traveled to the country to repair relations in the aftermath of Proposition 187, a measure championed by his predecessor, Pete Wilson. A California trade official at the time described a taxi driver booting a state employee from his cab, and Davis said he was told the owner of a building where a state office was located received death threats. “It was very hostile,” Davis said.
Assemblyman Luis Alejo, a lawmaker accompanying Brown this week, said, “It’s funny, 20 years later, the difference.”
Proposition 187 has receded from memory, while Perry’s National Guard order and restrictions passed in Arizona in 2012 have taken its place.
Between Texas and California, Senate President Pro Tem-elect Kevin de León said, “the contrast couldn’t be larger.”
Many Mexicans have no reason to readily distinguish between laws in individual U.S. states, and even among those who do, there remains a sense that Mexican immigrants in the U.S. are mistreated.
Selling snacks at a roadside stall not far from the club where Brown and the religious leaders met, Israel Gonzalez Vazquez said through an interpreter that his father, who went to the United States 20 years ago, was once fired from his job at a factory during a crackdown on people in the country illegally.
But he said his father tells him conditions in California are now “way better than before,” that the government “helps them more.”
Asked Tuesday if the government was doing enough to secure the border, Brown said the crisis is not a military issue and that money spent addressing problems in Central America could have a better impact on security.
“I’ve read that the United States government is spending $20 billion on the border, and a fraction of that invested in other problems in Central America might create a lot more security,” he said. “I’m not prepared to say whether they have the right number of border guards or the right number of drone airplanes or whatever else they’re doing, or the amount of wall size or wall width – that I can’t say.
But I don’t think this is a military problem because millions of people have been coming across that border for many years under Republican and Democratic presidents. So I think now we need to take stock of where we are, deal with each of the cases of the children that are here, and then work with Mexico and Central America to get something done.”
Earlier Tuesday, Brown joined Mexican officials in a call to increase college-student exchanges between California and Mexico, an effort Brown said is “another way to bring California and Mexico closer together.”
“We’ve been getting closer together just by the migration pattern of the last few decades,” he said. “This is a more conscious effort to accelerate and deepen – or I might even say rationalize – that process.”
Mexico sent more than 14,000 students to the United States in the 2012-13 academic year, but far fewer students travel the other way, according to the New York nonprofit Institute of International Education. In all, the U.S. sent fewer than 4,000 students to Mexico in 2011-12, the most recent year for which data was available.
Student exchanges are widely viewed as significant to improving cultural and economic ties between countries, but many Americans avoided Mexico in recent years because of a surge in drug violence and organized crime. The California State University system only last year lifted its ban on student travel to Mexico, instituted in 2011 over security concerns.