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Editorial: On Mexico trip, Gov Brown should recast ugly debate about immigration

Gov. Jerry Brown is heading to Mexico today, along with 112 California government and business leaders, for a three-day trade mission.

When there, Brown and the delegation will meet with Mexican officials to talk about tourism and investment – Mexico is California’s No. 1 export market – climate change and education.

Not on the agenda is the crisis at our mutual border of unaccompanied children from Central America or any discussion of immigration reform. That’s in keeping with the governor’s recent reticence to step into middle of an issue that is roiling emotions across the nation. But on this trip he can’t ignore an issue that’s central to the people of this state.

In fact, it’s the perfect opportunity for the governor to infuse the debate with some inimitable Jerry Brown style and rescue it from the ugly rhetoric and appalling political theater that has characterized so much of the news coverage. We’re talking to you, Gov. Rick Perry.

Brown has an opportunity – and a responsibility as the leader of California – to recast the conversation. It has been largely shaped by fearmongers and demagogues such as the Texas governor, and our own Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, who said last week on the floor of the House that “the mass incursion of our borders will continue and our nation’s sovereignty will slowly fade away.” Oy. That makes it sound as if thousands of troops with tanks are storming the border crossing, not vans full of frightened children.

America needs a massive reboot when it comes to border politics. Brown could do that by helping Americans see the invisible line between Mexico and the United States not as a liability, which is how Washington and most of the country view it, but as an amazing opportunity for economic growth and prosperity.

Ahead of the governor’s trip, a delegation of U.S. foreign officials, including Secretary of Foreign Affairs José Antonio Meade, Undersecretary Sergio Alcocer and Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S., Eduardo Medina Mora, came to Sacramento last week to meet with elected officials and business leaders. Delegation members also met with The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board, where they talked about the economic opportunities of our shared border.

California and Mexico are more than mere neighbors. Their economies are intertwined, particularly in manufacturing. Trade between this state and Mexico last year amounted to $60 billion. For Los Angeles alone, the trade is about $2.5 billion – two times Mexico’s annual trade with the entire country of Spain. Mexican workers in the United States, many of them in California, send about $22 billion in remittances home every year.

There are untapped opportunities for cross-border trade. Energy, for example. Mexico, like California, has a mandate to reduce its carbon footprint – by 50 percent by 2050. Alcocer said Mexico will look to green energy expertise in California to get there.

Increased trade, however, is hindered by a tight border, particularly around San Diego. When people speak of the border being open, they are not talking about California, where it can take hours in choking traffic to cross. That’s why projects such as the new pedestrian walkway between the border and the Tijuana airport are so important.

Another topic that Brown should champion is a guest worker program, which would go a long way toward so many of the immigration issues people are yelling about at the moment. California’s agriculture industry in particular relies on migrant workers. But because it’s tough to travel back and forth to Mexico, migrants remain here and send for their families to join them.

Brown should look at Canada’s guest worker program, in which 19,000 Mexicans are granted entry each year for seven to eight months. These migrants can earn money on farms and return to their families off season, bringing home an economic boost, new skills and hope for their own countries.

We’re glad Brown hasn’t joined in Rick Perry’s jingoistic antics of sending armed forces to the border. But he needs to do something more. This isn’t the time for border state governors to be fence-sitting.