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Jerry Brown, avoiding immigration debate, heads to Mexico

When Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation last year granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, he accused Congress of “foot-dragging” on immigration and said Washington needed “a good push.”

The move was uncharacteristic of Brown who, in his third term, had largely declined to engage in national policy debates.

But an opening on immigration appeared available to Brown, the popular Democratic governor of an influential border state. President Barack Obama and Democrats in Washington were pressing the Republican-controlled House on an immigration bill, amid growing public support for changes to the nation’s immigration laws.

“The power of this force of immigrants is so strong, so heavy, that even the politicians can’t ignore it anymore,” Brown said at a rally in Fresno in October, on the day he signed the driver’s license bill.

Nine months later, the illegal border crossing of thousands of young immigrants from Central America has upended the immigration debate, shifting pressure onto Obama for his handling of the crisis and mustering conservative opposition to expanded protections for undocumented minors.

In this newly charged atmosphere – moreover, an election year – Brown has fallen back. While declaring last year that he was “not waiting” for Washington to act on immigration, his administration now refers to the border crisis as primarily a federal responsibility. Brown has said nothing specific about the handling of immigrants bused into California and has not made stops in cities where tension over the influx of immigrants has flared.

When he touches down in Mexico today for the first official visit of his term, he is expected to confine himself to the nation’s capital city, far from the border, with talks focused on the environment and trade.

“As a governor of the state with the largest immigrant population in America, it would be entirely appropriate for Jerry Brown to rally his fellow governors into coming up with a third-party solution that they could put forward to Congress and try to break the logjam on immigration reform,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson.

Brown, Whalen said, “has not been a part of this issue.”

The governor’s reticence on the border crisis contrasts with the pique voiced by politicians across the country in response to Obama’s proposal to speed deportations and address the surge of immigrants with $3.7 billion in border spending. Governors from states as close to the border as Texas and as far as Nebraska, Iowa and Maryland have all asserted positions, and Democratic lawmakers in California have called attention to the issue with trips to El Salvador and Guatemala, and to a Ventura County naval base serving as a detention center.

Earlier this month Melissa Melendez, a Republican assemblywoman representing the town of Murrieta, through which busloads of immigrants have passed, called on Brown to outline a plan for confronting the situation.

“My plea to the governor is find out what the end date is,” said Melendez, of Lake Elsinore. “What’s the strategy?”

In a rare public remark on the issue, in a speech on an unrelated topic this month, Brown briefly mentioned that children fleeing violence in Central America constitutes a “human tragedy,” and he called for a bipartisan solution in Washington.

“We’ve got a problem, and the only way we solve it is if Republicans and Democrats, if congressmen and congresswomen, work with the president to deal with a very difficult problem,” Brown said. “It’s a human problem, not a problem for the next politician jumping on board to get himself ahead.”

The cautiousness of Brown’s statement frustrated even supporters of immigration-related policies Brown has enacted.

Carlos Amador of the California Immigrant Policy Center in Los Angeles said,“We still have a long way to go to make sure that California is seen unequivocally as the model state for immigrant integration.”

Last year, Brown buoyed immigration activists when he signed the driver’s license bill and, before that, legislation allowing undocumented immigrant college students to receive public financial aid. During his administration, California had become “the beacon of light of the way to get things done on the immigration ledger,” said Jaime Regalado, retired executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

For a time last year, Brown’s ambition on immigration appeared to be national in scope. In a letter to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in May 2013, Brown called for a “smooth and rapid” path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He said he was working to find state money to implement immigration changes, which the administration did not end up doing, and convening a task force on agricultural labor needs, which it did.

Brown told reporters in Sacramento last week that he wants to “deal with some of the issues on the refugees” when he is in Mexico and that “California is willing to do its part.” But he did not say what, if anything, that might include.

“I see this as not so much a political issue, in terms of the underage people coming from Central America,” he said. “It’s really a humanitarian question.”

Asked if he could say what he plans to accomplish on the refugee situation and if he could address Obama’s proposals specifically, Brown said, “Not really.” He said he hoped Obama’s meeting with the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras would result in “forward movement.”

Brown’s visit to Mexico City seems unlikely to advance a strategy on the subject, with its protocol-heavy schedule of government-to-government meetings and business events.

Trips to Mexico by California governors are symbolically significant to relations between the two countries, and Brown irritated some immigrant advocates by waiting so long to go. His first official visit comes nearly four years – and one trip to China – after taking office.

“There was a lot of concern about that” among Latino lawmakers, said former state Sen. Denise Ducheny, a senior policy adviser at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego. “A lot of us said, ‘Wait a minute, Mexico’s closer. We should do this first.’ … But at least now he is doing Mexico, so that’s a good thing.”

Ducheny, a San Diego Democrat, said immigration-related bills Brown has signed in recent years “go a long way” in the state’s relationship with Mexico but that “the government-to-government level is where it hasn’t been that robust the last few years.”

Among lawmakers planning to travel with Brown to Mexico is Assemblyman Luis Alejo, who said of Brown’s visit, “It’s always better late than never.”

“We certainly had hoped it was sooner,” the Watsonville Democrat said, “but we’re also pleased that the governor has made this a priority.”

Alejo said the driver’s license bill, the student aid bill for undocumented immigrants and other measures give Brown “some really good things to talk about, things that he’s done to improve the lives of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in California.”

Last week, Brown nominated a Mexico-born Stanford Law School professor, who has advised Obama on immigration, to the California Supreme Court. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, in Central America for meetings on the immigration surge, said in a prepared statement that “as the humanitarian situation on the U.S.-Mexico border triggers a demarcated debate of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ the governor’s nomination of Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar to the state’s Supreme Court serves as a timely reminder that our Golden State was forged by disparate immigrant communities who pushed frontiers and who, together, recognized a common strength in diversity.”

Brown visited Mexico several times when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983, but even then he was hesitant on immigration, which he described in 1978 as a “very painful problem.”

Earlier in his term, his position on immigration had been even more ambivalent. In 1975, his first year in office, Brown was scolded publicly by the Ford administration when he worried publicly about the impact Vietnamese refugees would have on a state that at the time grappled with an unemployment rate of more than 9 percent.

Brown said at the time that his concern “is the priority to be given unemployed Californians.”

“We had better look to the needs and aspirations of those who are here,” Brown said. “We can’t be looking 5,000 miles away. There is something a little strange about saying, let’s bring 500,000 more people when we can’t take care of the 1 million we have who are out of work.”

Brown’s rhetoric reflected not only the faltering economy, but his own political ambition: He would go on to run for president the following year, the first of three unsuccessful campaigns. In a populist appeal, Brown called on Washington to create one job for an American for every job made available to Vietnamese refugees.

By 1979, though, Brown’s tone had softened.

“We are a country of refugees and immigrants,” said Brown, who convened a state task force to help coordinate aid for the refugees. “It is now time for us to provide a role in the protection of life. … This is a scandal to Vietnam and a scandal to humanity.”

Still, Brown continued to express doubt that a governor had any real ability to influence federal immigration policy.

“America is a land of opportunity and people will keep coming here to work,” Brown said at a meeting of governors in 1981, according to a United Press International report that year. “There’s not much that the governors can do about immigration policy. It’s not going to be solved this year or the next year.”

At the time, anxiety over immigration had not yet reached the pitch that eventually led to the enactment of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, three years after Brown left office.

Still, the governor cultivated support with California’s Latino electorate – signing the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act and vetoing legislation that would have weakened farmworker unions. During his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Brown frequently mentioned his personal relationship with Cesar Chavez, the late labor icon.

But it was also in that campaign that Brown spoke against providing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. He called it a “piecemeal” solution that “sends the wrong signal.”

“I said at the time the answer is immigration reform, and that’s true,” Brown said when he changed his mind on the legislation last year. “But because Congress has been so slow, I think they need a good push, and that’s what I think this driver’s license bill does. It says California recognizes these human beings are very important to our communities, to our economy, and hopefully people in Washington will get the message.”

Erik Lee, executive director of the North American Research Partnership, which studies border issues, said legislation Brown has signed has made California “a leader in doing what it can within its jurisdiction” on immigration.

But even if Brown said more on the subject, Lee is not sure it would make any difference nationally.

“I don’t know,” Lee said. “We’ve seen this issue crash and burn before. It gets a really high profile, and then it goes nowhere.”

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