Alien Nation

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

Then, numerous "drop houses" loaded with several dozen immigrants were busted by police. In many cases, the immigrants were being held at gunpoint until money for their release arrived from families in Mexico.

And another story graphically displayed what might happen to those who don't pay. In late 2002, Maricopa County sheriff's deputies discovered eight bodies in the desert of people likely executed by members of drug and/or smuggling rings.

Members of the voting public are feeling endangered because they're "reacting to what they've seen in the media," says Merrill, the ASU pollster.

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

What people don't seem to notice is that there haven't been many shootouts, or busted drop houses, or bodies found, in the last year.

That's because local police and federal agents seem to have been successful in busting up several of the most violent and highest-volume smugglers (or at least sending them to other towns). Local and federal agencies have arrested hundreds of alleged smugglers in southern Arizona in the last two years.

"It's still a huge problem, there's no doubt," says Steve Haynes, head of the PPD intelligence and investigations unit. "But we did see a real drop-off in activity."

But even if the violence among coyotes and undocumented workers was still at an all-time high, it would have little effect on anybody else.

"The reality is this: If you're not running drugs or smuggling immigrants, the odds of you being assaulted or murdered in Phoenix are almost zero," Haynes says. "But that's not the perception."

And that's not the political rhetoric, either.

"The criminal element being let in is just huge!" Pearce exclaims. "For what? So the pro-fraud crowd can have cheap labor? We just don't feel it's worth it."

The pro-Prop 200 and anti-Prop 200 crowds did agree on one point. The illegal immigration problem in Arizona (if, according to the anti crowd, it's even a problem) is not going to be properly addressed on the state level.

"It is primarily a federal issue," Pearce says.

Indeed, Pearce says, Prop 200 was more than anything a message from the public for Washington to get to work on substantial immigration reform.

Prop 200 detractors simply said it is the wrong message to send, would muck up state government and would distract people from real federal reform.

The final question, then, is what should the federal government do?

Of course, experts say, that depends on who you are.

If you're an upper- or middle-class Arizonan who uses undocumented workers to reduce the cost of household services, or a business owner who can't compete without cheap labor or can't keep enough workers around to keep your business going, you probably want things to remain exactly as they are.

If you're sympathetic to the plight of undocumented workers currently in the United States, you'll want to support an amnesty program.

If you don't benefit directly from cheap and plentiful undocumented labor, and you can see the issue strictly as an economic one, or you believe Mexicans are ruining America, then you probably want to support the plan fostered by Steve Camarota, the chief of research for the Center for Immigration Studies.

What is known is that heavy border enforcement worked in the El Paso and San Diego sectors.

The Border Patrol, then, must essentially create a similar level of presence along the Arizona border if the flow of illegal immigrants is to be curbed. Camarota suggests greatly increasing the 2,000 agents patrolling at any one time. Since illegal immigration costs the federal government $10 billion a year, several billion could be spent on border enforcement and there would be a net gain.

The second prong of any viable plan, Camarota says, is to begin enforcing the federal ban on hiring illegal aliens.

"That is completely unenforced right now," he says. "But it is critical to any successful policy."

All very simple -- in theory.

But folks in the Valley might remember how wild things can get when the government starts rounding up people for inspections.

"Do you remember the fallout from the roundup in Chandler a few years back?" asks the PPD's Haynes, referring to a five-day project by the Chandler Police Department in 1997 to capture undocumented immigrants. Police there essentially stopped everybody who "looked Mexican," which led to outrage and numerous lawsuits from wrongly targeted American citizens.

"Oh my God!" Haynes says. "We're still talking about that to this day."

"Nobody is saying any of this will be easy," Camarota says. "It will be tough and expensive. But if the will is there, something can be done."

E-mail, or call 602-744-6549.

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