Bill Whalen: Brown takes a back seat on immigration reform

A year ago, Jerry Brown seemed determined to link his political identity and destiny to that of America’s immigrant community.

California’s governor stated that he expected to “play a role” in national immigration reform. Last October, Brown signed a slate of bills that included granting driver’s licenses to immigrants even if they lack legal status, prohibiting local law enforcement from detaining immigrants longer than necessary for minor crimes and allowing illegal immigrants to be licensed as lawyers.

That was then, this is now.

Brown met with Mexico’s secretary of foreign affairs this week, and signed a bill reducing the deportation of illegal immigrants for minor crimes. But it was one of 24 bills released on Monday by his office – a stark contrast to Brown’s media tour last October to play up the driver’s license law. And it’s hardly a tremor felt back in Washington, D.C.

Furthermore, Brown has had little to say about immigration-related protests across the south state, where residents are opposed to Central American refugees landing in California. The governor, however, did serve up this clunker earlier this month before the American Federation of Teachers: Illegal immigrants “may come in through Texas because they have so many holes in the border down there, but they usually want to get over to California as fast as they can because stuff is happening here.” As the audience laughed, Brown added, “I’m not saying I’m encouraging that.”

Why would Brown ratchet down the rhetoric when the topic of illegal immigration is at a boiling point unseen in 20 years since the vote on Proposition 187?

Maybe he’s planning a big pronouncement in the next few months. Then again, Brown has had nearly four years to outline his vision. Nor has he used a bully pulpit only he possesses: As the head of the state with the nation’s largest immigrant population, Brown is uniquely suited to rally his fellow governors behind a solution to break the immigration reform stalemate back East.

Or it could be that with an election on the horizon, Brown chooses to tread lightly on an issue that, back in 1994, made life uncomfortable for state Democrats (most notably, his sister Kathleen, the former state treasurer and Democratic gubernatorial nominee). The anger on display down south isn’t enough to cost the governor his job. But for Democrats in more competitive races in the right-of-center Inland Empire and Central Valley, it begs the questions as to how California will continue to make do with a $4 billion to $6 billion hole in the state budget caused by illegal immigration.

So let’s subtract points from the governor’s report card for being so boisterous about immigration reform in 2013 and downplaying it in 2014. And while we’re at it, let’s also mark down Neel Kashkari, Brown’s Republican challenger, for not picking up the leadership slack.

Last week, Kashkari, a second-generation Indian American, had this to say to conservative Breitbart News: “We have to send these kids home, safely and compassionately. I come at this from the perspective of a son of immigrants. I believe immigrants add value, and that we are a nation of immigrants. I favor immigration reform. Yet I see these waves of kids coming, and it’s shocking to me, and it shows if you do create incentives, people respond to that.”

That’s refreshing to hear, given that most Republican candidates’ knee-jerk reaction is to talk about border control rather than humanitarian concerns. But for Kashkari, soothing words aren’t enough. He needs follow-up – speeches, media events, YouTube ads on the cheap – for two reasons.

First, Kashkari, unlike his opponent, doesn’t have $20 million in the bank. Unable to do much in the way of paid advertising, he needs to capitalize on what’s in the news. Last month’s teacher tenure ruling in Los Angeles offered such an opportunity. So, too, does the immigration debate.

Second, since Brown isn’t much of a target other than for his stubborn insistence on high-speed rail, Kashkari has to push the debate in a different direction – leadership. That includes reaching out to impoverished and politically disenfranchised pockets of the Golden State, as well as Californians young and old who worry about the state’s future.

Since taking office in 2011, Brown has demonstrated a willingness to go against the political grain – even if it means offending fellow Democrats. But on immigration, he has been both proactive and passive. Kashkari should call out the governor for being too silent at a time when the state and the nation could use some clarity.

Say it enough times and maybe voters will start to listen – if not in 2014, perhaps by 2018.