Barack Obama dived into California's most contentious policy debates Saturday at an East Los Angeles appearance where he defended immigration reform and affirmative action and criticized Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's veto of a measure to extend college scholarships to students in the country illegally.
"That was wrong," the Illinois senator and Democratic presidential candidate told several hundred gathered at Garfield High School. "Instead of driving thousands of children who were on the right path into the shadows, we need to give those who play by the rules the opportunity to succeed."
Later, during a question-and-answer session, he returned to the topic, declaring that if a student had been brought to this country illegally but had been going to school "like every other American child, it is cruel and stupid for us to suddenly say to them: 'We're not going to give you college scholarships. We're not going to let you finance your college education.' "
Schwarzenegger vetoed SB 1, the California Dream Act, on Oct. 13, saying that the Cal Grant financial aid program and community college fee waivers should be for legal residents, not illegal immigrant students.
Schwarzenegger's office did not respond to Obama's remarks.
On the broader topic of immigration, Obama reiterated his support for a comprehensive plan that would have tightened border security but given a pathway to citizenship for the millions already in the country illegally.
"When people say, 'Oh, send 'em all back' -- we're not sending them all back," he said. "People aren't telling the truth. We would have to use all our law enforcement resources. We couldn't go after gang bangers, we couldn't go after auto theft. We'd have to use every single law enforcement officer to go around and round up folks who are working at restaurants."
He said that he would work to diversify the nation's schools despite court rulings that have curbed affirmative action. California fought its own battle over affirmative action in 1996, with voters siding with an initiative that banned preferential treatment based on race or ethnicity in public programs.
"Diversity is not the enemy of excellence, it is the engine of excellence," he said. "I am a strong believer in diversity, and affirmative action is one tool to help achieve that."
Obama came to California behind in the polls and in statewide fundraising, both key measures of support leading up to the Feb. 5 primary. For months, he has been laboring against the strong lead of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose courtship of the state began during her husband's 1992 presidential campaign. As if to sharpen the point, the Clinton campaign let loose Friday with a memo from her pollster -- "How Hillary Will Win the West" -- that noted her strong leads among Latinos and women, who form the bulk of the state's Democratic voters.
Obama alluded to his status in the race as he urged the audience to join his campaign.
"There are a lot of people now who are saying, 'Oh, you know what? Hillary Clinton, she's so far ahead. Obama, he's nice but that's not going to happen.' Let me tell you something. First of all, when you're 46, you're black and your name is Barack Obama, you're always the underdog," he said, laughing. "So nobody expected that this would be easy."
Saturday's public event -- wedged between three private fundraisers -- was intended to give the candidate time to discuss dropout rates and the problems facing inner-city schools. Garfield High was portrayed in the movie "Stand and Deliver," which chronicled the passionate efforts of calculus teacher Jaime Escalante to inspire his students. Obama wedged a reference to the movie into his remarks, though it came out as "stand up and deliver."
Yet it was not so much education as the Iraq war and immigration that drew the most energetic responses from the invitation-only crowd of high school students, their parents and members of community organizations.
Perhaps the loudest cheer came when one woman asked whether it would be possible to hold President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney "accountable for the war."
"You can applaud the fact that they are leaving; they are not on the ballot," Obama said, before adding that an impeachment "would be counterproductive" because the 2008 election is not far away.
He used the question to take a swipe at Clinton's recent vote for a resolution that labeled the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a government-sponsored military organization, a terrorist group. Obama, who was absent but has said that he would have voted against it, has contended that it would make it easier for Bush to attack Iran.
"We've got to have leaders who are willing to say: 'Don't start another war with Iran when we're not finished [in Iraq and Afghanistan],' " he said.
In remarks that preceded the more relaxed question-and-answer session, Obama said as president he would institute an urban bank modeled after the World Bank to fund inner-city development, would press for affordable housing, and would back programs to help middle-school students improve their standing.
Noting that Latinos and African Americans have higher dropout rates, he said that the problem would expand to affect everyone as the workforce became dominated by those groups.
"How do we expect to continue to compete in the world?" he asked. "We teach our children that in America if you dream big and you work hard, you will fly. . . . We need to keep that promise to every single child in America."