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Arnold's Unbecoming Xenophobia

Emil Guillermo, Special to SF Gate

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

His first full 24 hours as governor aren't even over, but already I can see the epitaph for the Ah-nuld administration.

Don't be fooled by all the heavy immigrant rhetoric in the inaugural address. When the man with the self-described "immigrant's optimism" declared, "I will not forget you," most of the Latino community had to be bent over in laughter.

He won't forget you? Not unless you're an undocumented immigrant in need of a driver's license.

Here's the new climate Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is about to create: When all is said and done, historians will associate him with one thing: He was the accented immigrant who restored a climate of hate and xenophobia in the country's most diverse state.

Just as Ward Connerly was the black man who ended affirmative action in California, Schwarzenegger will be remembered for being the man who once and for all cracked down on undocumented immigrants in the state.

You don't think he's going to stop with the repeal of the driver's-license law, do you?

That's just the warm-up.

Senate Bill 60, signed by outgoing Gov. Gray Davis on Sept. 5, is one of Schwarzenegger's targets in the new special legislative session.

The law gives undocumented immigrants the right to be licensed to drive in California. It's simply a restoration of California's pre-1994 law that did exactly that. Eighteen other states have the same policy.

SB 60 makes the roads safer for everyone by assuring a standard level of motorist knowledge and ability. And, with a license, undocumented workers can obtain auto insurance.

But something strange happens when you mention driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Even people you wouldn't expect to object will furrow their brows and wonder, "You mean you need a driver's license to ride in the trunk?"

It seems that among the populace, undocumented workers are OK for picking the lettuce and tomatoes for everyone's salads. But in these USA Patriot Act times, there's now a fear that there are terrorists among the vegetable pickers.

Even if they throw the tomatoes they harvest, the undocumented immigrants affected by the law are not likely to be the kind of terrorists worth worrying about.

Most known terrorists have been either American citizens or documented immigrants -- not the undocumented and unlicensed Mexicans who drive beat-up vans to work the fields in the Central Valley.

Still, polls show voters are so against the law that six Democratic legislators are all set to join Republicans for the repeal vote.

It's a significant shift among the members of the state Legislature -- and among the people of California.

And don't think Schwarzenegger and his staff -- a cadre of old Pete Wilson cronies -- haven't noticed.

Wilson, Schwarzenegger's political godfather, was the notorious mastermind behind Proposition 187, the state measure that took social services from undocumented immigrants in 1994. That measure started a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that finally died off when the state economy seemed to boom in the late '90s.

But now the economy seems bogged down again, not moving fast enough for anyone's satisfaction. And the time seems ripe for some good old-fashioned scapegoating: damn those immigrants.

Are you ready for Ah-nuld's new xenophobia? The governor appears poised to use it.

He sort of has to. Who's he going to blame for the bad economy -- the Democrats?

He can try, but there's too much economic pain to go around to blame just them. There will be so much agony that Rush Limbaugh doesn't have enough painkiller in his secret stash to stop it.

There were hints of the pain ahead in the glamour gov's low-budget inaugural -- strictly a made-for-C-SPAN-affair, a sure sign of trouble.

Enter the undocumented workers.

Once the repeal of SB 60 links undocumented immigrants to terrorism, Schwarzenegger can pretty much have his way with them. Why stop at terrorism? He can blame them for the total financial ruin of the state, using up millions in state aid.

Pete Wilson's been down that path before. And, likely, so will his protégé, Schwarzenegger.

Already, the governor's new audit has revealed a shortfall of $13 billion for the fiscal year ending in 2005.

And when the vehicle-license fees get rolled back because Ah-nuld promised it, and the state can't borrow to offset shortfalls, the deficit could reach $30 billion.

Good thing Schwarzenegger's an actor. Being governor is going to be like starring in a slasher movie.

But where do you cut? How do you balance the budget?

On the backs of our scapegoats, of course. It's the return of that good old Proposition 187 mentality.

Schwarzenegger will be channeling Wilson, and most of us will be happy to go along with it, because it will appear to make sense. Undocumented immigrants don't really belong here, do they? And it's our money they're spending, right?

But don't despair. We already know how this saga ends.

The business cycle will kick in, the economy will lift. And people will need service workers, maids and gardeners again. The corporate-agriculture guys will need farmhands. Everybody will still be selfish, but in a slightly more compassionate way. They'll come to their senses and tolerate undocumented workers again.

We'll realize we need them for business, and, of course, Schwarzenegger will do what business wants. Those I-9s you fill out at job sites? Pure show biz. No one goes after employers at any time. And, in good times, no one goes after undocumented workers, either.

But just wait. Ah-nuld won't be let off the hook that easy.

When he looks to run for his first full term, he'll run into the huge Latino vote -- the same force that never forgot the Wilson years and gave Democrats a landslide win in 1998.

"Hasta la vista, baby" will never sound sweeter.

That's the good thing about any latter-day revival of the Proposition 187 mentality. History tells us that it can lead only to disaster in a state as diverse as California.

But that won't stop people like Wilson from trying. The former two-term governor has his own reputation to restore.

And he likes his chances, especially with an accented immigrant -- an actor -- as his new mouthpiece and leading man.

Emil Guillermo is a radio and TV commentator and the author of "Amok: Essays From an Asian American Perspective," winner of an American Book Award. E-mail: h