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Arnold's Truthful Talk on Immigration

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- We teach our children that, if they tell the truth, they won't get into trouble.

It didn't work out that way for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, during a series of town hall meetings last week, put his finger on an unpleasant -- but undeniable -- facet of the immigration debate and got pummeled for it by right-wing talk radio hosts and bloggers who can't accept the truth.

Schwarzenegger warns that we are entering "a dangerous area.'' He thinks we shouldn't blame those who want to come to America but rather the federal government, which is "not securing our borders.'' In an interview with the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune before the town hall meetings, he called illegal immigration "a self-inflicted wound.'' Along with 70 percent of California voters in a recent Field Poll, he supports comprehensive reform that includes secure borders, guest workers and legalization of undocumented immigrants.

Schwarzenegger told the newspaper that he believes in redemption and thinks the American people do as well. They "like to see that you have done things (to make up) for the mistake you made -- because we all make mistakes,'' he said. Above all, the governor wants to elevate the tenor of what has become a nasty public debate and see it conducted "in a civil way without prejudice and without hatred.''

Later, after meeting with angry constituents who yelled slogans such as "stop the invasion,'' Schwarzenegger told reporters the encounter was "pretty much the first time I had seen the intensity of prejudice.''

It was the word "prejudice'' that set off the critics. How dare the governor use such loaded language to describe the good people who are opposed to illegal immigration, they roared.

The Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Tom McClintock, even called on Schwarzenegger to recant his statement. "The governor said something he didn't mean,'' McClintock said on talk radio, "and I'd like to see him come forward and say so.''

Get real. Prejudice -- and its cousins, racism and xenophobia -- are intrinsic to the immigration debate, just as they have been in every immigration debate since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. When people deny this, I always ask them to pinpoint the moment in American history when this great nation got over the tendency to make the debate about keeping out specific groups of people. They can't -- because it never did.

Prejudice is still with us. And who does the governor believe is on the receiving end today? Who do you think, amigo?

Schwarzenegger told the editorial board that Californians are "making a big mistake'' if they focus their anger on "Mexico or Mexicans or Latinos or whoever is coming through the South.''

That's the tendency. For the insecure and intolerant, the complaints are always about how Latino immigrants -- legal or illegal -- are changing the cultural landscape. Many Americans are ready to go to war over the annoyance of having to press "1'' for English in Nebraska, or seeing Spanish-language billboards in Nevada, or watching Brazilian restaurants pop up in once-deserted downtowns in New Jersey.

The culture warriors include the reader who sends me racist e-mail under the screen name: "No More Mexicans.'' At least he's honest. He doesn't put out this smoke screen that his concerns are about what's legal or illegal. He spells out what he wants -- a nation with "no more Mexicans.'' I appreciate the directness. In fact, if this guy were standing before me, I'd lift his hood and pat him on the head.

Arnold knows the score. And why shouldn't he with his life experience?

As an immigrant himself, Schwarzenegger no doubt knows all about nativism and discrimination. He wouldn't be surprised that, in a recent poll by the Pew Hispanic Center, 54 percent of Hispanics think the debate over immigration reform has worsened discrimination against them. Just 15 percent said the debate had no effect.

This is someone who, during the election that put him in office, was mocked by his opponent -- Gov. Gray Davis -- for the way the Austrian pronounced "Ca-ly-for-nee-ya.'' And this is someone who, as governor, brought to light and condemned the death threats mailed to Lieutenant Gov. Cruz Bustamante, one of the state's most prominent Latino officials.

When he says the current immigration debate has the usual dose of "prejudice,'' Schwarzenegger is right on target. He's telling the truth. And, as the saying goes, it hurts.

ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

(c) 2006, The San Diego Union-Tribune


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