Skip to comments.In border states, illegal crossings a top concern
Posted on 02/02/2004 1:43:45 PM PST by Cyropaedia
In border states, illegal crossings a top concern
By Dave Montgomery Star-Telegram Washington Bureau
BISBEE, Ariz. - It's barely two hours past sunup, and Chris Simcox sprints past cactuses and waist-high shrubs, pausing occasionally to inspect the piles of discarded water bottles, empty backpacks and other refuse that litters the desert terrain.
As head of a border watchdog group called Civil Homeland Defense, the trim 43-year-old is on the trail of undocumented immigrants heading north through this forbidding stretch of southern Arizona. He is dressed warmly to fend off the morning chill, and a pistol is tucked under his jacket. For self-defense, he explains.
Simcox, the owner of a small-town newspaper, describes his group as a kind of "neighborhood watch" forced into action by failed U.S. immigration policy. Detractors call him a vigilante, a tag he angrily rejects.
Whatever the label, Simcox embodies one of many sides of a complex debate with much at stake for Texas and other border states, as well as the rest of the nation. Illegal immigration divides communities and politicians alike, and this year, the always-volatile issue is further inflamed by presidential politics.
In Arizona and New Mexico, which are among the seven states that will hold presidential primaries or party caucuses Tuesday, controlling immigration is a top election-year priority, along with the economy and the war in Iraq. The issue does more than pit Democrats against Republicans; it also divides the GOP, as some Republicans fiercely resist President Bush's proposal to create a guest-worker program.
The president's initiative, similar to one proposed by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, would match immigrants with available U.S. jobs and allow them to stay in the United States for up to six years.
Although supporters of the proposal applaud Bush for at least addressing the issue, the initiative has come under attack by some who believe it goes too far and some who say it doesn't go far enough.
Hispanic advocacy groups say it fails to provide a path to U.S. citizenship, while conservatives predict that guest workers would overstay their visas and add to the rolls of undocumented immigrants.
"I haven't heard many people in favor of it," Arizona state Rep. Randy Graf, a Republican, says of Bush's plan. "I've talked to people, who, because of this one issue, wouldn't vote for him."
Virtually everyone agrees that something needs to be done -- and quickly. A 1986 overhaul of immigration laws, which sought to penalize employers who hire undocumented workers, has largely been deemed a failure, doing little to abate the flow across the border.
Immigration experts estimate that between 8 million and 10 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States, including as many as 1 million in Texas. An additional 500,000 undocumented immigrants enter the country each year, according to the Census Bureau.
At least 55 percent come from Mexico, lured by jobs that pay 10 times more than those in their country. They pay up to $5,000 to smugglers, known as coyotes, to bring them across the border and often endure a treacherous march through the desert to make their way into the U.S. labor market.
Since the mid-1990s, more than 2,000 have died, succumbing to a multitude of perils: starvation, dehydration, heatstroke, drowning, murder or suffocation while packed elbow-to-elbow in the back of windowless trucks.
Those who survive constantly look over their shoulders. Luis Herrera, 20, who lives in Tucson, remained in the United States with his family after their visas expired.
He attends college but carefully avoids any contact with police, Border Patrol agents or other authority figures. "I can't even go to the library and check out a book," he says.
In Douglas, Mayor Roy Borane describes his border community of 15,000 as "ground zero" of illegal immigration. Before the Border Patrol intensified enforcement in Borane's city, undocumented immigrants passed through "in droves," using the neighboring Mexican border town of Agua Prieta as a staging area to link up with smugglers.
Borane, who grew up in Douglas, takes a sympathetic attitude toward immigrants and led the City Council to pass a resolution condemning area ranchers who apprehend those crossing the border. The Mexican government gave him one of its top humanitarian awards.
But thousands of other Arizonans have become infuriated with the continuing immigration, complaining that undocumented immigrants consume millions of dollars in public services and wrest jobs from U.S. citizens. They also complain that immigrants trash the landscape and steal property on their way north.
"They come through our yard every night," says Eddie Shuck of Bisbee, a copper-mining town 20 minutes north of Douglas. "We're not talking about five or six. We're talking about 50 or more."
In an outgrowth of constituent opposition, Graf and other Republican allies in the state House have united behind an initiative that would require proof of U.S. citizenship to vote or receive nonfederal public benefits.
The "Protect Arizona Now" proposition will be placed on the November ballot if backers muster 122,612 signatures, a goal they believe is easily within reach. Graf says polls show that more than 70 percent of the Arizona electorate favor the initiative, which the White House opposes.
Alfredo Gutierrez, a former state senator who heads opposition to the proposal, concedes that it has a strong chance of passing.
"This is one divisive issue, and it's smacking away at the Republicans as well as the Democrats," he says. "It has the potential to lead to some pretty ugly characterizations."
The debate over illegal immigration involves a diverse cast of participants, including human rights activists and church groups that provide assistance to immigrants as well as ranchers and other groups organized as citizen border patrols.
One of the most visible is Simcox, a former teacher turned activist. He moved to the fabled Old West town of Tombstone, cashed in his retirement to buy a local newspaper and launched his Civil Homeland Defense movement.
Simcox and other members of the group spend hours each day scouring the border for immigrants. Over the past two years, he says, they have helped the Border Patrol apprehend more than 2,300 undocumented immigrants from 26 nations.
Simcox ran afoul of the law last year and was arrested on suspicion of carrying a firearm on federal property, an allegation that he says was "politically motivated." He acknowledges carrying a weapon -- Arizona, like Texas, allows residents to obtain firearms permits -- but says that he does so only to protect himself and that he has never had to use it.
On one early morning outing last week, a pistol tucked in the back of his jeans was visible when he took off his jacket. One of his partners -- 48-year-old Craig Howard, a transplanted Californian -- carried two pistols.
A rare overnight downpour cut off access to roads adjacent to the border, forcing Simcox, Howard and another colleague to direct this day's mission about 30 miles to the north. The search yielded no immigrants, but footprints and scattered litter offered evidence of recent travelers.
Critics maintain that such groups harass immigrants and wrongly take the law into their own hands. Simcox counters that he and other members merely notify the Border Patrol when they see an immigrant and never try to detain them.
The only way to block unlawful immigration, says Simcox, is to seal the border with military troops. He calls U.S. immigration policy "immoral" and says he plans to write in the name of U.S. Rep. Thomas Tancredo for president in November. The Colorado lawmaker has emerged as the most vocal Republican critic of Bush's immigration plan.
Glenn Spencer has a similar perspective. The 66-year-old is developing a fleet of unmanned air vehicles -- oversized model airplanes equipped with cameras -- to patrol the border. At his home in Sierra Vista, Spencer can often be found sitting behind a horseshoe-shaped control panel cluttered with television sets and computer screens.
"This is a problem of biblical proportions," said Spencer, who heads a group called the American Border Patrol.
The Rev. Robin Hoover, a graduate of Texas Christian University's Brite Divinity School who lives in Tucson, also spends much of his time along the border, but for a far different reason than Simcox or Spencer. He and his congregation cruise through the desert in flatbed trucks, putting out water tanks to help thirsty immigrants on their way north.
He denounces border watchdog groups as paramilitary vigilantes who are "driven by hate." But, he adds, all sides in the debate share at least one point of view.
"Everybody in Arizona, no matter what your interest is, can find agreement on this: Our policies are broken and they need to be fixed."
Where the candidates stand on: IMMIGRATION
The tug of war between Republicans and Democrats over the nation's growing Hispanic vote has made immigration a key campaign issue. Here are the current positions of President Bush and the seven remaining Democratic presidential candidates:
Proposes granting legal status to millions of undocumented workers as well as people outside the United States who line up jobs in America. Plan would give them temporary legal status and expand the current program for highly skilled foreign workers and farm labor to other sectors of the economy where jobs are not being filled by Americans. Opposes giving undocumented immigrants an "automatic path to citizenship."
"In light of 9-11 and other concerns, I would tighten up our borders to ensure that fewer illegal immigrants get into this country. But I believe that we need to find ways to ensure that taxpaying, law-abiding, undocumented workers have a way to eventually earn their citizenship."
"We need earned legalization for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who work hard, pay taxes and otherwise obey the rules, so that they can become full participants in society, including becoming citizens. ... I will work to regularize the migration of labor in a way that makes economic and humanitarian sense. Deaths in the desert do neither."
"I support policies that welcome immigrants and protect our security, including an earned legalization program for those who work hard and play by the rules. ... We should reform the immigration system so there is a clear road map to legalization and citizenship for undocumented immigrants who work hard and follow the law. At the same time, we should work with our ally, Mexico, to better control the border and stop illegal trafficking."
"I support an earned legalization proposal that will allow undocumented immigrants to legalize their status [immediately] if they have been in the United States for a certain amount of time, have been working, and can pass a background check. ... I supported and was prepared to vote for amnesty from 1986 [when the issue was before Congress]. And it is essential to have immigration reform."
Would grant permanent legal status to undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for at least five years. Would grant conditional legal status and work authorization to those who have been in the country for less than five years and have otherwise not broken laws.
"Undocumented immigrants who have lived here for five years, paid taxes and contributed to their communities have earned the right to become full-fledged Americans." Would require a security check. Would expand work visas beyond the current program for highly skilled and farmworkers to "funnel temporary workers to areas of the country where unskilled and semiskilled labor is needed, after first ensuring American workers were not available for those jobs." Would guarantee "fair wages" and safe working conditions.
"I think that immigration policies are antiquated and in many cases biased. You see, there's a much different policy at the Canadian border than at the Mexican border. I'd have one policy. I'd have it more relaxed, just for opportunity. ... I think we need to sit down and have a respectful relationship with Mexico, where we deal with them as a partner."
SOURCES: The Associated Press, Project Vote Smart, candidates' position statements
Al is a savvy politician, but either (a) he is out of touch with his base here who are being outcompeted for low-end economic opportunities by Mexicans, or (b) shilling for Haitians and Jamaican votes without saying so.
Sure, there would be an inevitable collision with federal policing authority, but that would simply serve as the stage on which the feds' incompetence played out for all to see.
Of course, it would take a governor with some courage, and I don't know that any such animal exists ...
How do we have a respectful relationship with a country that actively encourages its citizens to break the law and enter our country illegally? Seems like Mexico has a total lack of respect (or is it open disdain?) for our sovereignty.
Well, that's obvious. My comment is that Al Sharpton's position is more, er, nuanced. Blacks and illegal Mexican immigrants don't always mix well, because they are (statistically speaking) competing for some of the same public resources.
Oh, I understood your post. I should've been clearer since I was really just asking a rhetorical question. Or maybe I just like to yammer on about Mexico's solutions to its problems: "No jobs? No problem. Head north." ;^)