SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto praised Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers Tuesday for approving a series of immigrant-friendly laws, saying California is taking a lead role in the absence of national immigration reform.
He specifically mentioned a law that allows immigrants in the country illegally to obtain driver's licenses, a law that has yet to take effect because a final decision has not been made about the appearance of the licenses.
California also allows immigrants here illegally to apply for state-funded college scholarships and aid at public universities. And earlier this month, Brown and the Democratic legislative leaders announced a plan to spend $3 million to provide legal help for the estimated 3,900 unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America who are in the state.
Pena Nieto said such actions signaled that California was recognizing human dignity no matter a person's immigration status.
"The progress you have promoted not only benefits Californians because you have sent a very clear message to the U.S. and the entire world," he said during an address in Spanish to a joint session of the Legislature.
His visit followed Brown's trade mission to Mexico earlier this summer. The Democratic governor wants to promote greater cross-border cooperation with the country that is California's largest export market, most notably on alternative energy projects that could help combat climate change.
In his own remarks to lawmakers, Brown said California was leading the way on such issues.
"There's more energy from the sun in California than there is under the ground in Texas," Brown said. "We're not waiting here in California. We are joining hands with Mexico."
A day earlier, the governor and Pena Nieto addressed hundreds of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans at an event in Los Angeles.
The last day of the president's two-day visit to California also was marked by a protest outside the historic mansion in the state capital where he had lunch with Brown and most members of the state Assembly and Senate.
About 150 protesters waved American flags and shouted slogans across the street, calling for the release of a U.S. Marine who has been detained since he crossed the border in April with weapons and ammunition in his vehicle.
Pena Nieto did not comment about the detention of Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, but his staff was handed a letter signed by 19 Republican state lawmakers asking for the Marine's release.
"Him taking a second look would be a wonderful gesture," said Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, a Republican from the Riverside County community of Lake Elsinore. "He came here in the spirit of cooperation ... and collaboration. A wonderful way to start us off in this direction is to take a look at this."
While three Republicans declined the lunch invitation, only one took part in the street protest, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly from the San Bernardino Mountains community of Twin Peaks. Several of his GOP colleagues criticized the move, saying lawmakers would have more an impact by meeting with the president and talking with him directly.
Brown's lunch invitation was sent to every state lawmaker, and it appeared that a majority from the Assembly and the Senate attended. Reporters were barred from the lunch after the opening remarks, raising questions about whether it violated California's open meetings law.
"This isn't a policy meeting; it's a lunch," said Brown spokesman Evan Westrup, when asked why reporters could not attend.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger held a similar event in 2010 that also banned reporters.