Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto lauded California on Tuesday for its relatively favorable treatment of undocumented immigrants, telling a joint session of the Legislature that the state has taken the “ethically correct” position in a national debate over immigration.
While Peña Nieto received a standing ovation, more than a dozen Republican lawmakers used his visit to urge the release of a U.S. Marine jailed in Mexico on a gun matter, and about 150 people protested a luncheon Gov. Jerry Brown hosted for the president earlier in the day.
“You’ve sent a clear message to the United States and the world that cultural diversity enriches and benefits society,” said Peña Nieto, speaking in Spanish. “That is the ethically correct position.”
The speech was the first to a joint session of the Legislature by a Mexican president since Felipe Calderón visited in 2008 – and the first since Brown signed a series of controversial laws cheered by immigration advocates. Since taking office in 2011, the Democratic governor has signed bills making undocumented immigrants eligible for driver’s licenses and college financial aid, among other measures.
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Before the Democratic-controlled Legislature – and in an increasingly diverse and liberal state – Peña Nieto told the lawmakers he planned to speak in Spanish since “most of you” know the language.
“Mexico celebrates the initiatives you’ve passed ... that contribute to the prosperity of the migrants that live here,” Peña Nieto said. “Opportunities like access to education, labor protection and the possibility of having a driver’s license.”
He called major changes to federal immigration laws “simply a matter of justice.”
Peña Nieto was met earlier Tuesday by protesters calling for the release of Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, who was jailed in Mexico after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with guns in his pickup truck earlier this year.
Tim Donnelly, the Republican assemblyman leading the protest, said that if “the president of Mexico wants to come here and ask for some concessions on immigration,” he should “show that courtesy that we afford to allies” and intervene on behalf of the Marine.
Donnelly, a tea party favorite and failed gubernatorial candidate, organized the protest on a sidewalk across the street from the Stanford Mansion, surrounded by protesters with bullhorns, American flags and signs criticizing Brown and President Barack Obama.
Brown brushed off the controversy in an interview on KNX 1070 radio in Los Angeles on Tuesday morning.
“There’s lots of issues in both countries because of our people going there, their coming here, so I don’t think that’s something that I’m going to comment on, at least on this radio show,” he said.
Brown added, “They’ve got a lot of their guys sitting in our jails, too.”
While Donnelly led protesters in chanting “Free our Marine,” 19 Republican Assembly members signed a letter urging his release, said Amanda Fulkerson, a spokeswoman for Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, delivered the letter to one of Peña Nieto’s aides at the luncheon, she said.
Melendez said, “we would like to have Sgt. Tahmooressi released,” but, she added, “We will not be making an aggressive attempt to speak to the president. We will be respectful of his time here and the fact that he was invited to come here.”
In remarks at the lunch event, Brown praised the history between California and Mexico and said, “the past is only prologue to an even brighter future in the days and years ahead.”
Mexico is California’s largest trading partner, and millions of people of Mexican origin live in the state. Latinos are also an increasingly significant force in electoral politics, and Brown – like many Democrats – performs well with Latino voters.
During a trip to Mexico City last month, Brown said he would support additional shelters for young emigrants from Central America crossing over the U.S.-Mexico border. He has called for increased student exchanges between the two countries, and Brown and legislative leaders last week announced a bill offering $3 million for legal services for unaccompanied minors.
Brown said Tuesday that he and Peña Nieto discussed trade, transportation, climate change and energy, but immigration has always colored appearances by Mexican presidents in California.
In 2006, about a half-dozen Republican lawmakers boycotted then-President Vicente Fox’s speech to the Legislature over illegal immigration.
On Tuesday, Conway of Tulare said Peña Nieto’s remarks on immigration were likely in response to Brown’s trip to Mexico, where, she said, “there weren’t many (members) of my caucus.”
Conway said she hopes Peña Nieto will also “hear some thoughts from some other Californians” besides Democrats on immigration-related policies, but she focused her own remarks on parts of Peña Nieto’s speech having to do with the economy and jobs.
“The theme of cooperation, I think, is a good one, because that’s what it takes,” she said. “We are neighbors.”
While suggesting optimism that the United States “will pass comprehensive immigration reform,” Peña Nieto focused far less on national policymaking than did Calderón in 2008.
That year, the Mexican president told lawmakers “future generations will judge us by the decisions we (make) today ... Did we work together to provide organized and humane migration, or did we continue to allow hundreds to die each year?”
State Sen. Mark Leno said Peña Nieto may have said less about federal policy because the prospect of movement on immigration in Washington is so unlikely.
“I think the difference may have been, with the preceding presidents, that there was actually hope that something could be done in Washington,” said Leno, D-San Francisco.
Now, he said, “We’re not waiting for Washington. We’re moving forward on our own.”