By Dan Boyd
Journal Capitol Bureau
It's often a show of friendly, regional diplomacy, but a darker mood could pervade this year's meeting between Mexico and U.S. border state governors.
With a background of worsening drug-war violence in Mexican border cities and disagreement on both sides of the border about U.S. immigration policies, a two-day Border Governors Conference started Sunday at a downtown Santa Fe hotel.
It wasn't clear what the gathering might accomplish, especially after the late cancellation of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, The Associated Press reported, was engaged in budget talks with lawmakers in his own state. This left New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as the only U.S. governor participating with the governors of six Mexican border states scheduled to attend.
California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado was to fill in for Schwarzenegger and serve as the co-host of the event.
Richardson said on KOAT-TV that Schwarzenegger was ill.
Arizona Gov. Jan. Brewer and Texas Gov. Rick Perry had already said they would skip the conference.
It wasn't supposed to be New Mexico's year to host the event, but after scheduled-host Arizona scratched the annual event this summer, Richardson stepped in to keep it alive, planning to be joined as a host by Schwarzenegger.
Now, the tight security, blocked-off streets and media attention are all Santa Fe's, if just for two days.
Nearly a dozen protesters stood outside the hotel Sunday asking for immigration reform and for rights for undocumented workers already in the U.S. and protesting Arizona's new immigration law.
The governors were to have a private dinner Sunday night and hold a series of talks today on border security, tourism, commerce, energy and the environment.
A handful of law enforcement agencies will keep close watch on the proceedings, given recent violence along the U.S.-Mexico border and emotions stirred up by the Arizona law.
"Security, obviously, will be pretty intense," said Alfred Matter, managing director of the Eldorado Hotel & Spa, which is hosting the event. "I think some of that is just the days we live in, as well as the controversy surrounding the border and the Arizona law."
New Mexico State Police spokesman Peter Olson said he's not aware of any specific threats, but he said State Police and other law enforcement agencies have been planning out their security presence for weeks.
"We're taking a very proactive approach to this," Olson said. "We don't want anything bad to happen."
The conference was scheduled to be held this year in Phoenix, but Brewer cancelled the meeting June 30 after the six Mexican border state governors said they planned to boycott the event. The Mexican governors were upset over the Arizona immigration law signed into law by Brewer this year.
Richardson announced in July that he planned to salvage the meeting and hold it in Santa Fe in collaboration with Schwarzenegger.
Christine Sierra, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, said that, while it's unclear how much actual policy work will come out of the meeting, Richardson made the right call in keeping it alive.
"If there ever was a time to continue the dialogue, it's now," said Sierra, who has written extensively about Hispanic voters and elections. "The urgency of discussing serious issues that affect both countries ... has not subsided."
Sierra said Friday that, although most violence has occurred on the Mexican side of the border, the two countries are inextricably bound on a number of issues.
Meanwhile, Richardson, a former congressman and U.N. ambassador who is a Democrat and the nation's lone Hispanic governor, has said immigration issues — specifically a reform of federal immigration laws — will be a top priority for him before his second term as governor ends this year.
Between 120 and 150 people are scheduled to attend the conference, not counting the 80 or so media members who had registered for the event as of late last week.
In a letter sent to Mexican border governors in July, Richardson asked them to limit the size of their delegation to no more than six people and to keep their security staffs small.
The event's cost will likely end up between $150,000 and $200,000, Richardson's office said. Most of the money is expected to come from private contributions.
Today's agenda is to begin with private meetings between the Mexican governors and Richardson. The conference will end with a meeting with federal delegates from both countries, then each governor making closing remarks and a closing news conference. The border governors have gathered every year for the past 27 years. Next year's meeting is scheduled to be held in Baja California.