Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is learning the hard way that trying to deflect political difficulties by using immigrants as a scapegoat will only get him in deeper trouble.

Beset by falling poll numbers and forced to postpone his pet project of privatizing public workers’ pensions, Schwarzenegger last week sought to divert public opinion from his free-fall by a series of racist, anti-immigrant remarks, the most flagrant of which was his praise for the “Minutemen” armed gangs currently trying to enforce vigilante rule along the U.S.-Mexican border in Arizona.

Asked what action he would take along the border, Schwarzenegger responded, “Well I think the most important thing is what they’re doing with the Minutemen,” adding, “I think they’ve done a terrific job [cutting] down the crossing of illegal immigrants.”

He made the remark during an appearance on the KFI-AM radio “John and Ken Show” April 28. A day later, Schwarzenegger called the Minutemen a “neighborhood patrol,” while an aide said they would be welcome to operate in California.

Response from immigrant rights and civil rights organizations was virtually instantaneous.

“We have always felt that if the root causes of immigration are not addressed, there will continue to be a migration from south to north across the border,” Christian Ramirez, San Diego area director for the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico Border Project, said in a telephone interview. “This is especially true following implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. We believe people should be given the freedom to move that goods and services have — enforcement won’t solve the immigration issue. What is needed are just economic and trade policies.”

Speaking at San Francisco meeting sponsored by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, Phil Ting, executive director of the Asian Law Caucus, said, “The governor must understand that this type of vigilante behavior is being used to promote violence against immigrants and people of color.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California released a statement calling Schwarzenegger’s remarks “bad governance.”

“The governor then took it one step farther in saying he is not opposed to vigilantism within our state,” it said. “Encouraging this kind of dangerous activity that invites harassment and intimidation is irresponsible.”

State Democratic Party Chair Art Torres said Schwarzenegger was exploiting fears about undocumented immigration to divert attention from his growing problems as governor and to appeal to ultra-right supporters.

Indeed, two polls released this week found the governor’s approval rating has dropped below 50 percent for the first time since he took office a year and a half ago.