The Governator's Changing Tune

The Governator's Changing Tune

By Ruben Navarrette - January 17, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- Et tu, Arnold?

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is usually a kinder, gentler Republican when it comes to immigrants. So what a shame that Schwarzenegger would, in his recent State of the State address, spread a familiar half-truth about the economics of illegal immigration by stressing the costs while ignoring the benefits.

This isn't the Arnold we knew.

In 2006, during a meeting with the editorial board of a Spanish-language newspaper, La Opinion, Schwarzenegger said it was a mistake for him to have supported Proposition 187, a mean-spirited ballot initiative in 1994 that denied education, social services, and non-emergency health care to illegal immigrants.

In 2007, in a speech to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Schwarzenegger called President George W. Bush "very courageous" for pursuing comprehensive immigration reform that included a pathway to earned legalization for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

In 2008, during a meeting with the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune, Schwarzenegger insisted that the United States has long struggled with the immigration issue in part because "there is always a certain percentage of people who just don't like foreigners."

And in 2009, during another meeting with the Union-Tribune, Schwarzenegger disputed the claim that California was in distress because it provides services to illegal immigrants. In fact, he said, the undocumented contribute to the California economy by working in hard-to-staff industries.

Schwarzenegger could have mentioned some of that in his State of the State address. Instead, he started arguing that California has been shortchanged. He claimed that the state only gets 78 cents back from the federal government for every dollar it sends to Washington while other states get a better return. One reason the economic picture is grim, he said, is that "Californians carry a special burden since we are a border state."

Uh, oh. Here comes the red meat -- and from the governor of a blue state, no less.

Schwarzenegger said that the federal government -- while responsible for controlling the border -- is "not even funding a 50-50 split of the costs of undocumented immigrants." Claiming that his state is owed billions of dollars for providing social programs, education and health care and other services to illegal immigrants, he vowed to fight for reimbursement.

As part of his proposed budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year, Schwarzenegger is asking for $6.9 billion in federal funds to help close a $20 billion deficit.

In doing all this, Schwarzenegger perpetuates the fiction that illegal immigration is something that was done to California when, in reality, it is something that the state did to itself.

It's true that California has more illegal immigrants than any other state. But that's because it has more than its share of employers who hire illegal immigrants.

Those employers also hire U.S. workers. Those employers make payrolls and support families. And they pay taxes. When their businesses do well, the state does well.

Take agriculture, where much of the labor force is illegal, as farming leaders have acknowledged. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the state's 88,000 farms and ranches make up a nearly $37 billion industry that also generates at least $100 billion in related economic activity.

As someone who grew up in the farmland of California's Central Valley, let me explain what "related economic activity" means. When a farmer does well (perhaps with the help of illegal immigrant labor), he might buy a new truck. The salesman who earns a commission might use it to pay the tuition for his child's preschool. The headmaster of that school might get a raise and go buy groceries. The money flows in circles.

Then there are hotels, restaurants, construction and other state industries that employ lots of illegal immigrants.

These are the benefits that Schwarzenegger talked about in last year's meeting with the Union-Tribune. And that's what he forgot to mention in his screed against federal mandates.

Meanwhile, I remember something else the governor mentioned during his visit.

"I think it's very important that we always correct (misinformation) and talk about how the reality works," Schwarzenegger said. "Because when you get asked, 'Isn't it the illegal immigrants who caused this budget problem and this budget mess and why we have a $24 billion budget crisis?' you've got to go and tell people, 'That is not so.'"

Now, Schwarzenegger is singing a different tune and implying that illegal immigrants are a drain on California.

Sorry, Governor. That is not so.

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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Ruben Navarrette

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