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Commentary: A rhetorical border war

SAN DIEGO -- Because of Arizona's spiteful new immigration law, a border conference meant to bring people together is having the opposite effect.

The last time there was this much heated rhetoric flying across the U.S.-Mexico border, James K. Polk was president, American foreign policy was guided by Manifest Destiny, and the Mexican War was about to break out.

Luckily, this time, all we have is a war of words -- not simply between the United States and Mexico but also within the fraternity of U.S. border-state governors. So much so that having already alienated Old Mexico, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer now seems headed for a showdown with New Mexico.

Meanwhile in the Land of Enchantment, Gov. Bill Richardson knows what it's like to be a border governor who is concerned with illegal immigration. But he's also concerned that Arizona is making the problem worse by passing a law that divides the population and promotes racial profiling.

"I do sympathize with the view that there is frustration in states like Arizona and New Mexico," Richardson told me. "But to take the law into our own hands is wrong."

This view is shared by the governors of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and Baja California, who decided to protest the Arizona law by boycotting the 28th annual meeting of U.S. and Mexican border governors in September because the conference was to be held in Phoenix. A disgruntled Brewer responded by scrapping the conference altogether. The decision did not go over well with Richardson who, along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, favored an alternative location.

"I was flabbergasted," Richardson said. "(Brewer) never called any of us. She just unilaterally declared it canceled."

I was curious about what Richardson thought of the Mexican governors' decision to boycott the Phoenix meeting.

"I have said publicly that I oppose boycotts," he said. "I don't feel that boycotting events in Arizona is good because -- for instance, with tourism -- it hurts a lot of Latino workers. I just don't think that's the way to approach it."

Still, I pressed, didn't Richardson have even a little admiration for the Mexican governors for raising their voices?

"I did," he acknowledged. "I felt they were taking a principled stand."

The fourth U.S. border governor, Rick Perry of Texas, is also taking a stand. Unfortunately, it seems based less on principle than on politics. Perry has come out against the Arizona law and declared that it "ain't exactly right for Texas." Yet Perry has also made it clear that he stands by Brewer and so he would not follow Richardson and Schwarzenegger to an alternate location.

As someone who wrote for a Texas newspaper for five years, I recognize this as typical Perry. Determined to have it both ways, the Republican governor -- who is up for re-election -- doesn't want to alienate either Latino constituents or the conservative white voters who support the Arizona law in large numbers. I recall Perry telling me a few years ago that he was taking Spanish lessons. Someone should explain to him that aspiring to be bilingual doesn't mean talking out of both sides of your mouth.

I asked Richardson what he made of Perry's mixed messages -- of standing against the Arizona law and yet standing by Brewer in defense of the measure.

"He's playing his politics," Richardson said. "I understand his politics. But I wish he'd come because Texas is such a major player on the border. And the Mexican governors like him."

Now, thanks in large measure to Richardson's efforts at damage control, the meeting has been rescheduled for late September in Santa Fe, N.M. The six Mexican governors will be there, and so will Schwarzenegger. Perry and Brewer may decide to stay away, in a counterboycott of their own.

But, if so, what exactly is it they'll be boycotting? Cross-border cooperation? International diplomacy?

For Richardson, the whole affair is just more evidence that the GOP doesn't know how to deal with the immigration issue without it blowing up in the party's face.

"Republicans don't understand that this is a bad issue for them -- to appear anti-immigrant every two years," he said. "It allows the West to go Democrat in states like Colorado. It's the tea party movement combined with the conservative base. They just don't get it."

It's true. Republicans don't get it. And if they keep skipping out on these kinds of border conferences, they never will.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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