Sunday, January 29, 2006

The immigration battle

from 'The New Republic'

Border War
by John B. Judis

Issue date: 01.16.06

A battered yellow school bus rumbles up a bumpy dirt road on the
outskirts of Sasabe, a small Mexican town just over the border from
Arizona. At the top of the hill, the bus winds around brick and mud
huts. Ragged children stand in the doorways, and emaciated dogs forage
for scraps. The bus passes dented pickups and old cars without wheels
and stops in a dusty clearing, where it disgorges about 40 teenagers
dressed in blue jeans and carrying small knapsacks. One boy's t-shirt
features a picture of Che Guevara. A girl's pale blue top says
adorable in sequined letters. They are subdued, almost expressionless.
They mill around, waiting for the coyotes, or smugglers, who, for a
hefty fee, will take them in pickup trucks to the border.

There, they will climb through holes in the barbed wire fence
separating Mexico from the United States. Some will not make it
through the 100-plus-degree Arizona desert on the other side (from
October 2004 to October 2005, 261 would-be migrants died in the desert
before reaching Tucson or Phoenix) and about one-third of them will be
apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol. But, over the course of a year,
almost two million will make it, sometimes after several tries, and
enter the underworld of undocumented migrants: working on farms, as
day-laborers in construction, as servants and maids, or in sweatshops
and meatpacking plants. Unable to protest mistreatment, they will be
subject to abuse and exploitation, but most of them will still fare
better than if they had stayed in their native villages.

This influx of migrants into Arizona--and the fact that many stay in
the state rather than moving north or west--has created a political
explosion. In November 2004, anti-immigration activists won a bruising
campaign to pass Proposition 200, which denies "public benefits" to
people who can't prove their citizenship, despite the opposition of
the state's congressional delegation, including Republican Senators
John McCain and Jon Kyl; Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano; and
major business groups and labor unions. Last spring, the Minuteman
Project, which George W. Bush wrote off as a group of "vigilantes,"
set up shop in Tombstone, near the border, to dramatize the failure of
the Border Patrol to prevent "illegals" from getting through.
Republican state legislators, equally hostile to McCain and
Napolitano, are trying to expand Proposition 200 and plan to make
illegal immigration the focus of the 2006 elections. "We are ground
zero" in the battle over immigration, warns former Arizona House
Majority Whip Randy Graf, who spearheaded the campaign for Proposition
200 and is now running for the Tucson-area House seat to be vacated by
Representative Jim Kolbe.

The furor over illegal immigration is sweeping the country--from
California and Washington to Virginia and Tennessee, and even up to
Vermont, New Hampshire, and Minnesota--but Arizona is indeed ground
zero, having surpassed neighboring states as the principal gateway to
the United States for illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central
America. Beltway politicians who want to clamp down on the border
claim this furor is the result, as Colorado Republican Representative
Tom Tancredo has suggested, of immigrants "taking jobs that Americans
could take." And many Americans far from the Arizona border certainly
believe that--in low-immigration West Virginia, for example, 60
percent of respondents in a recent poll agreed that "immigrants take
jobs away from Americans." But that's not what's happening in
Arizona's citrus groves or hotels or restaurants. And, in Arizona,
those who are most up in arms over illegal immigration are far more
concerned with its sociocultural than its economic effects. They are
worried about what is commonly called the "Mexicanization" of Arizona.
That kind of cultural concern extends to legal as well as illegal
immigrants--and it can't be easily fixed by legislation.

Mexicans began crossing the border to Arizona in the early twentieth
century to work in "the five Cs"--construction, copper, citrus,
cattle, and cotton--but, until recently, the great majority of illegal
immigrants came through California and Texas. In 1990, for example,
about 90 percent entered through those two states, while only about 5
percent came through Arizona. But, as the uproar over "illegals"
grew--in 1994, for example, California passed Proposition 187, denying
public benefits to undocumented workers--the Border Patrol instituted
Operation Gatekeeper in California and Operation Hold-the-Line in
Texas. These programs reduced illegal immigration to those states, but
not overall. Instead, illegal immigrants were simply diverted to
Arizona's desert border, and, between October 2004 and October 2005,
about half of the four million illegal immigrants who entered the
United States came through Arizona. According to Princeton University
sociologist Douglas Massey, about 1.5 million of them crossed the
eastern part of the Arizona border, south of Tucson, and about 470,000
entered through the area around Yuma, near the California border.

Going through the desert is far more dangerous than walking over a
bridge into a Texas or California border town or even fording the Rio
Grande. And it's more expensive, too. But Mexicans and other Latinos
are willing to pay the coyotes, because they hope to find well-paying
jobs in the United States. And, relative to where they came from, they
will. In 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA),
a farm worker in Mexico could expect to make $3.60 in an eight-hour
day, while his counterpart in the United States made $66.32 in the
same period. The discrepancy has increased since the North American
Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994, removing tariff
barriers on the importation of U.S. farm products and decimating small
farmers in Mexico. Says Sandra Polaski, a trade expert at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, "Small farmers who produced for
subsistence but also for the market lost their market access."
According to the USDA, Mexican farm income fell 4.3 percent per year
during the 1990s. Young men and women left in search of work, and,
while some of them found jobs in U.S. factories on the border
(maquiladoras), many of them crossed the border in search of
better-paying jobs.

Most of those who make it do find jobs--92 percent of males, according
to one estimate. And, with undocumented workers adding to the normal
population increase, Arizona's Latino population has ballooned, going
from 19 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2000. Phoenix, which was once
a primarily Anglo town, has gone from 20 percent to about 34 percent
Latino. Says former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, one of the
state's prominent Republicans, "When I was in the first grade in 1960,
Phoenix was the same distance from the border. Phoenix now feels much
more like a border town than it did even ten years ago. Billboards in
Spanish, a lot of people speaking Spanish. Most of us think this is
great, but a lot don't." This transformation in Arizona society and
culture, along with the disorder created by the dramatic rise in
border-crossings, has made immigration the biggest issue in Arizona

In the 2002 gubernatorial election, when Napolitano barely edged out
Republican Representative Matt Salmon, the two candidates rarely
mentioned immigration. But, soon after Napolitano took office in 2003,
she and her chief of staff, Dennis Burke, were astonished to discover
that the state's voters were preoccupied with the issue. Says Burke,
"The first time we looked at polling, the number-one issue was
immigration, not education. Then, a year and a half ago, it got pretty
visceral. It started to permeate all issues." That was largely because
political activists and conservative Republican state legislators had
begun organizing.

In July 2003, Phoenix resident Kathy McKee established the Protect
Arizona Now Committee and got a lawyer to write what became
Proposition 200, basing it on California's Proposition 187. It was put
on the November 2004 ballot. And, although almost the entire Arizona
political establishment opposed it, the measure still garnered 56
percent. Then, last year, the state legislature passed a raft of
anti-immigrant bills, including measures to deputize local and state
police officers to enforce immigration laws and to broaden the
definition of the "public benefits" denied to illegal immigrants under
Proposition 200. Napolitano vetoed all but one of the bills but has
since backtracked in the face of growing public pressure. And Russell
Pearce, the powerful chairman of the Arizona House Appropriations
Committee--who, with Graf's departure in 2004, has become the leader
of the legislature's anti-immigrant force--is currently championing
legislation that would make English Arizona's official language and
construct a wall along the entire Arizona border.

Graf, Pearce, McKee, and the Republican legislature have clearly
tapped a growing sentiment among the state's white voters. Wes
Gullett, a political consultant and a key adviser to John McCain,
recently conducted a poll in Cochise County, south of Tucson, to test
voter concerns. "Instead of asking what are the top three issues,"
Gullett says, "we have to ask what are the top four, because the first
three are immigration. You have to ask, 'What do you care about other
than immigration?' It's crazy down there."

But what, exactly, is this craziness about? In Washington, politicians
and political organizations regularly attribute the obsession with
immigration to illegal migrants taking the jobs of native-born
Americans. Tancredo makes that claim, and so do the two leading groups
advocating restrictions on immigration, the Federation for American
Immigration Reform (FAIR), which bankrolled Proposition 200, and the
Center for Immigration Studies. That did happen in Midwestern
meatpacking plants several decades ago, and it may still be happening
in some parts of the country, but it does not seem to be the case in
Arizona, where unemployment hovers below 5 percent and where
construction, agriculture, and tourism are plagued by acute labor
shortages. Illegal immigration doesn't even seem to be having a
dramatic effect on wages, with pay for unskilled work in Arizona
regularly exceeding the minimum wage.

Unskilled workers currently make up 32 percent of Arizona's labor
force, and they are constantly in demand. Tom Nassif of Western
Growers, a trade association, recently complained that the
construction industry was "siphoning off" the migrant workers that
growers needed in the field. "Farms will not have enough workers to
harvest their crops," he warned. Meanwhile, Arizona's tourist industry
says it can't find enough workers for its hotels and restaurants.
Bobby Surber, the vice president of Sedona Center, who runs three
restaurants, two shopping plazas, and a resort, and employs 200
people, says, "Even though we pay larger than average, and full
medical and dental, we cannot find enough employees."

Of course, Arizonans could still believe, just as Americans in West
Virginia do, that illegal immigrants threaten their jobs. And
pollsters invite this response by always asking about the economic
effect of immigration and refraining from raising uncomfortable
cultural concerns. But, in interviewing Arizonans, one rarely
encounters complaints about illegal immigrants taking jobs away. One
does hear about the cost of state services for illegal immigrants.
Indeed, even the Latinos who voted for Proposition 200 were worried
about the burden that illegal immigrants were placing on schools and
hospitals. And, in border towns, crime and disorder are pressing
issues. (Some of the coyotes double as drug smugglers, and the
migrants traipse through farms and ranches.) But, among many
Arizonans, the most important issues are cultural. They fret about
"Mexicanization"--about Arizona becoming a "Third World country" or
"the next Mexifornia."

In interviews I conducted last fall, leaders of the movement to
restrict immigration usually began by expressing concerns that illegal
immigration was undermining the rule of law and allowing terrorists to
sneak across the border--concerns they seem to believe are most likely
to win over a national audience. But they invariably became most
animated, and most candid, when talking about what they see as the
unwillingness of Mexican immigrants--legal or illegal--to assimilate
into American culture.

Connie, who doesn't want her last name used for fear of retaliation
from immigration advocates, was one of the first members of the
Minutemen. She lives in Sierra Vista, a small retirement town near the
border. Barely five feet tall, with short, graying hair, she prides
herself on her feistiness. She is now in charge of patrolling the
Nacos area near the border. She says that, at night, she and her
husband station themselves on a hill in view of the fence and watch
for "illegals." She says that she became interested in the Minutemen
because the organization was upholding the rule of law and keeping out
terrorists. "We have many apprehensions of Pakistanis and Iraqis on
the border. They are coming in disguised as Hispanics and blending
in," she says. (When I ask a human rights worker in Sasabe if he had
heard of Iraqis entering the United States disguised as Latinos, he
laughs. "The [Mexican] army is very watchful about that kind of
thing," he says.)

Connie insists that the Minutemen are neither "extremist" nor
"racist," but, as we ride along the border in her Ford Navigator,
Connie voices distinctly cultural and racial concerns. She says that
the illegals she sees coming across the border are the "darker"
Mexicans. Mexican President Vicente Fox, she says, "doesn't want them
in the country." She speculates that Mexicans might want to take over
Arizona: "In Mexico, they are taught this land was taken from them.
They are not taught they were paid tons of money for it. There is a
belief they want this back." (After defeating the Mexican army in
1848, the United States bought all of California and the Southwest
from Mexico for $15 million.) When I comment that California has
remained in good shape despite massive immigration, she takes
exception. "California is not a shining example," she says. "You have
the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Russians, all these people
immigrating. How many languages do you have to have on the ballot?"
Asked if she would support McCain's proposal to allow Mexicans to
enter the country legally as guest workers, Connie demurs. "Who is
going to pay for it?" she asks. "When my grandmother came from
Czechoslovakia, one thing she did was assimilate. She was proud to be
an American. Their attitude is, 'We won't assimilate.'"

That's what bothers Graf as well. "We are talking about assimilation,"
says the congressional candidate, as we sit in his East Tucson
campaign headquarters. "I don't have any problem about anyone who
wants to salute our flag and learn our language and be a citizen. What
got me into the whole issue was that I was standing in line in a
Safeway, and this woman was ahead of me, and she had an infant, and
was pregnant, and her mother was with her. She was paying for
groceries in food stamps. And, when the clerk asked for her signature,
she acted like she didn't understand English, and neither did her
mother. I found it odd that an entire family could be here on welfare
and not speak any English. On welfare!"

Graf's chief ally is Pearce, who lives in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa.
Last fall, he complained to a reporter from about his
hometown: "It's not the Mesa I was raised in. They have turned it into
a Third World country," he said. By "they," Pearce means Latinos in
general. On his website, he warns, "Over 800,000 Americans fled
California last year because LA became a clone of Mexico City."
Pearce, like Connie and Graf, envisages a cultural conflict between
the white America he grew up in and an invading army of dark-skinned,
Spanish-speaking immigrants from south of the border.

Ray Borane, the longtime Democratic mayor of Douglas, a border town in
Cochise County, laments that Graf "represents the majority opinion" in
the state. That may be an exaggeration, given Napolitano's and
McCain's continued popularity, but Graf and his angry allies do
represent a significant segment of voters--perhaps one-third or
more--who are up in arms. And longtime observers of Arizona politics
confirm that a concern with Mexicanization lies at the heart of their
opposition to illegal immigration. "Nobody is afraid of jobs," says
Gullett, the McCain adviser. "We have got labor demand. That's not a
problem. There is no feeling that people are losing their jobs. There
is a tremendous fear that our community and our way of life is
changing." Dave Wagner, the former political editor of The Arizona
Republic, who is writing a book about Arizona politics, says that, in
Phoenix, "Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have their own culture and
stores. It is possible if you are Spanish-speaking to disappear into
that culture. That scares the hell out of some people." Says Woods:
"Arizona has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, and a lot of
people are uncomfortable with that."

It's a discomfort that politicians like Graf and Pearce hope to take
advantage of. They want to purge the Republican Party of pro-business
conservatives like McCain, Woods, Kolbe, and Phoenix Representative
Jeff Flake, all of whom favor a guest-worker program and some form of
amnesty for undocumented workers already in the United States. Graf
ran against Kolbe, an opponent of Proposition 200, in 2004, and, in
spite of being massively outspent, got 43 percent of the vote. He's
running again, and, with Kolbe out of the race, he has a decent chance
of winning the Republican nomination. Republicans in the legislature
are also preparing a witches' brew of new anti-immigrant legislation
for the term that begins in January.

And the underlying conditions that have fueled their protest and made
Arizona ground zero are likely to persist. Arizona businesses have
relied on migrant labor for 100 years. Says Phoenix College political
scientist Pete Dimas, author of Progress and a Mexican American
Community's Struggle for Existence, "Immigrants have provided the
cheap labor on which this whole part of the country has depended." And
the demand for unskilled labor is likely to continue. According to
statistics from the Department of Labor, 13 of the 20 occupations in
Arizona that will experience the highest growth from 2002 to 2012
employ unskilled workers. Many of these jobs in food-processing or
building service are now spurned by the native-born and are filled by
illegal immigrants. And, with all of Mexico's tariffs on farm products
due to disappear under NAFTA, and with the Central American Free Trade
Agreement going into effect, the supply of unskilled labor looking
northward is likely, if anything, to mount.

As immigrants continue to cross the border, the "culture war" is
unlikely to abate. Connie is right. Mexican and Central American legal
and illegal immigrants probably won't assimilate in the way her Czech
grandmother did. European immigrants who came to the United States in
the last century had to travel over an ocean to arrive here, and many
of them came from countries undergoing political or economic
upheavals. Their identification with the homeland rarely lasted past a
generation. That's not as true of Mexican or other Latino immigrants,
who have their own claim on the culture of the West.

Many of the migrant workers who crossed the border after 1848 did so
to make money to bring back home. They retained their language and
national identity. According to Douglas Massey, Jorge Duran, and Nolan
J. Malone in Beyond Smoke and Mirrors, 23.4 million of the 28 million
undocumented workers who entered the United States between 1965 and
1985 returned to Mexico. What's changed in the last decade,
ironically, is that more extensive border enforcement has discouraged
illegal immigrants from returning to Mexico for fear that they will be
unable to get back into the United States. Still, many continue to
support extended families in Mexico, call themselves Mexicans, and
consider their primary language Spanish. They are contributing to a
bicultural America that stirs fear and resentment among some
native-born Americans and that will continue to inspire calls to close
the southern border.

Arizonans on both sides of the controversy are looking to Washington
for solutions. They know that states can't pass their own guest-worker
programs; nor can they police their own borders. But there is little
chance that the Bush administration and Republicans in
Congress--sharply divided between social conservatives and business
interests--will be able to pass legislation this year. And, even if
the House, the Senate, and the White House could agree on an approach,
it would not end the furor over immigration.

Last month, social conservatives in the House, led by Tancredo and
Wisconsin Representative James Sensenbrenner, passed a punitive bill
that would erect new walls along the border, make illegal immigration
a felony, and require employers to weed out illegal workers by
checking their immigration status against a national database. In the
Senate, McCain and Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy introduced a
bill that is backed by business and by some labor groups. It would let
migrant workers obtain renewable three-year visas and allow
undocumented workers already in the country to stay provided they pay
a fine. McCain and Kennedy probably can't get their bill through the
Senate--too many Republicans fear being tagged as proponents of
"amnesty" for illegal immigrants--but they could certainly muster
enough votes to prevent the Senate from passing a version of the House

In the past, Bush has leaned toward McCain's approach--the president
encouraged McCain after the 2004 election to seek Kennedy's support
for a bill--but he has recently attempted to appease social
conservatives, praising the House's measures to "protect our borders
and crack down on illegal entry into the United States." Bush holds
out hope for a Senate bill that would somehow combine McCain's
approach with Tancredo's. But that's unlikely to happen.

Even if Congress were to adopt one of these approaches--or a
combination of the two--it would not quiet the controversy. Punitive
approaches have either had unintended consequences (for instance,
encouraging illegal immigrants to stay in the United States rather
than return to Mexico) or have proved unenforceable. Border Patrol
spending has increased over 1,000 percent since 1986 without reducing
border-crossings. McCain and Kennedy's approach is far better,
acknowledging the inescapable reality of Latino immigration and its
net benefit to the U.S. economy. But granting amnesty to undocumented
workers, and inviting new workers in, will not satisfy Americans who
are offended by the growing presence--legal or illegal--of Latinos in
their midst. And combining the two proposals would more or less
reproduce the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which hiked
border spending, threatened employer penalties, granted amnesty to
undocumented workers, and led to almost two decades of clamor over

That furor will not abate until at least one of two conditions is met.
The first is a dramatic generational change in the cultural attitudes
of non-Latino Americans--meaning the acceptance of biculturalism in
large parts of the United States, including Arizona. Frank Pierson,
the supervising organizer of Arizona's Valley Interfaith Network, a
coalition of church and labor groups that promotes cultural
integration, wants Arizonans to adopt the biblical tradition of
showing "love for the stranger." But non-Latino Americans probably
have to reach a point where they no longer see immigrants from south
of the border as strangers at all.

The other condition is a change in the unequal economic relationship
between the United States and its neighbors to the south, which would
reduce the supply of unskilled laborers seeking jobs in the United
States. Such a change could probably only occur if the United States
were to assume the same responsibility toward Mexico and Central
America that the more prosperous nations of Western Europe did toward
Spain, Greece, and Portugal when they wanted to enter the European
Union--granting them aid, along with protection of their industries
and agriculture, over a transitional period.

But neither condition is likely to be met in the near future.
Americans are not ready to embrace the teenagers who gathered in
Sasabe as their own, and U.S. business is not ready to see Mexico and
Central America as anything other than a platform for exports and
investment. As a result, the conflict over Latino immigration will
continue. And, if what's happening on the Arizona border is any gauge,
that's not something to look forward to.
John B. Judis is a senior editor at TNR and a visiting scholar at the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

John B. Judis, a senior editor for The New Republic, has been a
contributor since 1982. He received his 1963, and his M.A. in
1965 from the University of California at Berkeley. As active member
of SDS and the left of the Sixties, he taught philosophy at Berkeley
and at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Judis was a founding editor of the Socialist Revolution in 1969, now
called Socialist Review. In 1975 he started a new monthly called East
Bay Voice. He moved to Washington in 1982 as the Washington
correspondent to In These Times. Soon afterwards, he began writing for
The New Republic, and for GQ. His articles have also appeared in The
American Prospect, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post,
Foreign Affairs, The Washington Monthly, American Enterprise, Mother
Jones, and Dissent.

His books include The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special
Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust; William F. Buckley:
Patron Saint of the Conservatives, and Grand Illusion: Critics and
Champions of the American Century.

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