Alien Nation

Undocumented workers constitute the biggest political issue in Arizona. But do we want to send them packing?

In the past few years, the economy of Mexico has remained stagnant. Hopes of President Vicente Fox's fixing Mexico's mammoth economic problems have faded while high prices in California, low mortgage rates across America and, recently, a slowly recovering economy have kept entry-level jobs plentiful in Arizona.

Not only does the Border Patrol's stricter enforcement to the east and west channel illegal immigrants straight into Arizona, the state's bustling cheap-labor economy and its burgeoning community also draw in illegals.

Now, an estimated 1.2 million illegal immigrants pass through the Arizona border each year, or about 4,000 each day. A majority move through Phoenix to points throughout the country, immigration officials say. An unknown minority stay. An estimated 300,000 now live in the Valley, 500,000 in the state.

If all illegal immigrants from Mexico left, would Arizona's economy suffer a death blow?
Mark Poutenis
If all illegal immigrants from Mexico left, would Arizona's economy suffer a death blow?
Prop 200 opposition leader Alfredo Gutierrez
Prop 200 opposition leader Alfredo Gutierrez

And they stay longer now. Dramatically increased enforcement at the border -- even the Arizona border -- has driven up both the price of a crossing (some immigrants now pay as much as $3,000) and the danger associated with it.

"The seasonal worker is a thing of the past," says Miguel Monteil, a retired ASU professor who has led numerous Valley social and economic projects aimed at the Latino community. "The crossing has just gotten too expensive and too dangerous. If you get here, you're staying here."

And illegals are more likely to get stuck in Phoenix. Since 2001, flying out of Sky Harbor Airport has become nearly impossible if you're undocumented.

However, none of these factors explains the boiling public sentiment behind Proposition 200. Indeed, if one in 10 people living in Arizona is a Mexican national, that's not much different from any other time in the state's history.

What's clearly different is the level of crime and violence now associated with illegal immigration. Ironically, most of that increased crime is related to the lucrative human-smuggling business that boomed in the past three years in reaction to border crackdowns.

In 2001 and 2002, a rash of murders and home invasions involving human smugglers dominated local television news.

"The polls simply measure what's happening in the media," ASU pollster Bruce Merrill says.

Interestingly, FBI statistics released recently show violent crime in the Valley dropped 8 percent in 2003, which may mean that concerted law enforcement efforts to curb smuggling violence may be working.

But the image of hordes of violent illegals invading the state still lingers, particularly in Arizona's sprawling retirement communities, the wellspring of conservative law-and-order mentality.

"Prop 200 supporters have tapped the same group that loves the language of Joe Arpaio," Merrill observes. "Retirees' biggest concern is crime and violence. When illegal immigration issues are framed in those terms, retirees support Prop 200."

In addition, with health-care costs skyrocketing, the price tag for treatment of the uninsured has skyrocketed. And that cost is being absorbed by a public that is increasingly alarmed and angry about the price of health care.

These two issues -- harnessed in oversimplified, overly emotional political rhetoric -- seem to have rapidly altered the opinions of Arizonans on illegal immigration.

For most of the state's history, average American citizens here have been ambivalent toward undocumented workers, researchers say. Sure, there have been social ramifications, but it was long believed that Arizona's economy would be severely injured, possibly to the point of death, without Mexican labor.

Now, Arizonans want something done about what they perceive as violent interlopers who sap public coffers.

"Boom, all of a sudden, it's being seen as a crisis," says Merrill. "And just as quickly, people believe strongly that their elected officials have done nothing about the problem."

Which has quickly created a bizarre political phenomenon. All of a sudden, Merrill says, there is a large percentage of the voting public bucking the opinion of nearly every public official they put into office by voting for a proposition that, most everybody admits, will have little impact on illegal immigration.

"The people we're polling are saying it's almost a purely symbolic vote," he says. "It's people in the middle feeling that the elite aren't doing anything because they want the cheap labor. So they're sending a message. It's not about voting for a proposition that fixes something. It's just about sending a message to politicians that the people want something done about immigration."

And, very likely, Prop 200 sentiment is having an effect that its generally right-wing proponents didn't intend. Some experts say it might well politically energize the burgeoning Hispanic community in the Valley, which approaches 30 percent of the population but a far lower percentage of the voting public.

Proposition 200 was couched, at least overtly, on a simple premise: Illegal immigration is very bad for the economics of Arizona.

The proposition was primarily crafted and financed by outside anti-immigration groups who believe that illegal immigration is a huge financial burden on U.S. citizens. Arizona is, essentially, a beachhead for pushing much tougher federal immigration laws.

Steve Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., finished in August one of the most comprehensive studies on the cost of illegal immigration in the last decade.

Even he admits, though, that it's still far short of definitive. And because of Arizona's unique economy, his national findings, he says, may not reflect exactly what's happening here.

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