Alien Nation

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

"Right there is the only place the average guy is going to see any real financial benefit," Camarota says. "If you can save a few thousand on a landscaping job, then, well, maybe a taxpayer can come out even in the equation."

At the same time, though, are you killing a local small business person who plays by the rules?

Such small business owners, contends Prop 200 committee co-chair Pearce, made up one of the strongest pro-Prop 200 groups.

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

"The small businessman is tired of getting hurt for playing fair!" he declares.

There's also a notion that illegal immigrants significantly drive down the prices of all goods and services in the regions where they live, which many researchers dispute.

"As far as lowering prices nearby, the benefit has historically been very small," says ASU professor Brian Gratton, an expert on border migration and economic patterns. "You're talking a few percentage points, when people think it's something huge."

That's because labor costs are only about 10 percent of the costs for, say, building a house. Even if wages are increased 50 percent, that's still a marginal increase in the overall price.

"Although that's always the argument by farm or hospitality sectors, the price to the consumer probably goes up little without illegal workers," Camarota says. "And particularly in farming, you see technological advances quickly appear when there isn't an abundance of people willing to work for depressed wages."

Gratton throws in one last interesting twist regarding the issue. In the early 1980s, he says, Arizona had a sizable seasonal migration of construction workers from Oklahoma, Texas and other states. As salaries haven't kept pace thanks to an abundance of immigrant laborers, that migration has virtually stopped.

"This would suggest there are Americans willing and able to do a lot of these jobs if the salary is there," Gratton says. "When it gets down to it, the only really profound benefit goes to the employer."

And, of course, to the Mexican worker who is making several times what he or she could make in Mexico.

Which brings us back to another aspect of the rift that Proposition 200 so clearly exposed:

The rift between the rest of society and "Middle Class Radicals," or MARs, a term posited by sociologist Donald Warren in his 1976 book The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation.

Essentially, the feeling of MARs is that the middle class pays the bill for the rich to exploit the poor.

Although the book is almost 30 years old, that same sentiment is sold by Prop 200 supporters such as Pearce. It is also a sentiment that ASU pollster Merrill is hearing from Arizona voters.

"You and me get stuck paying for a big party that benefits only rich businessmen and illegal immigrants," Pearce says.

"We hear time and time again this feeling that the rich elite are doing this to get cheap labor," Merrill says. "So they feel pushed to legislate from the ballot box."

"The disconnect between the middle class and the elite is profound on immigration like it is on no other issue in the country," Camarota says. "And it seems to be just boiling over in Arizona.

"Right now, we're at a point where public opinion is strong enough on the issue to prevent amnesty, but not strong enough to increase interior enforcement," he says. "But that may be changing."

"We are importing criminals by the carloads," Russell Pearce insists.

Immigration is an issue of economics, and Americans historically have not gotten that fired up about the economics of immigration.

But Americans, especially Arizonans, do get easily fired up about crime.

And two issues since the last voting cycle have linked illegal immigration to crime, especially violent crime.

Since September 11, 2001, the call for securing our borders has taken on a different meaning. Several government security reports have clearly stated how easily a terrorist could slip into the United States across the Arizona border.

No kidding. Three to four thousand people sneak into the state from Mexico every day.

And this is why illegal immigrants from Mexico take on a sinister hue they didn't have in the 20th century.

Also, once security was tightened at the border, the business of human smuggling boomed. What once was a cottage industry in which immigrants would usually pay savvy fellow townspeople a few hundred dollars to cross has become a billion-dollar enterprise.

"The sophistication of the operations and the money involved just skyrocketed," says Lieutenant Rob Robinson, commander of the Phoenix Police Department's robbery unit.

The increased money has brought increased violence and crime to the Valley.

The number of home invasions in Phoenix doubled from 2001 to 2002. Seventy-five percent of those involved undocumented immigrants, records show.

Coyotes have stolen human cargo from rivals and routinely extort money from immigrants and their families back in Mexico.

Kidnappings in Phoenix doubled from 2002 to 2003. Again, records show, about three-fourths involved undocumented workers.

All this wasn't much of an issue until several incidences made headlines in 2003.

One was a shocking rolling gun battle along I-10 south of Phoenix between rival smugglers. Four smugglers were killed and five were wounded in the fight.

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