Alien Nation

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

Let's just say Proposition 200 supporters got their wish: all 300,000 or so illegal immigrants left the Valley.

Hallelujah! Prop 200 supporters would say.

Arizona is doomed, Prop 200 detractors would lament.

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
Day laborers in Mesa: Cheap labor, but Prop 200 backers say they drain public coffers and increase crime.
Jackie Mercandetti
Day laborers in Mesa: Cheap labor, but Prop 200 backers say they drain public coffers and increase crime.
Pro-Prop 200 leader Russell Pearce
Pro-Prop 200 leader Russell Pearce

A new day would dawn. Emergency-room waits would plummet. Hospitals could become solvent. Violent crime might drop.

However, soiled hotel sheets would go unchanged, hospital bedpans unwashed. Tourists and patients might head for Las Vegas.

New homes could take five years to build instead of five months. New-home prices would skyrocket, driving away buyers. Used-home values would skyrocket, driving up property taxes.

The price of a nanny likely would double.

Increased nanny salaries might attract unemployed American citizens who had never before considered becoming nannies.

However, with higher taxes and prices, nobody could afford a nanny anymore.

Unemployed American nannies might go on welfare and move into barrios left vacant by exiting illegals. Out of boredom and hopelessness, their children surely would form gangs.

But in time, unemployed nannies might take construction jobs at the higher wages since work-for-next-to-nothing illegals have disappeared.

With their new money and skills, the former nannies might fix up their inner-city homes and sell them to a new urban gentry. The ex-nannies could then move to California, which would then be cheaper.

Which would create a worker shortage, which in all likelihood would spawn a Mexican guest-worker program.

And then the sky would fall.

Or it wouldn't.

Or hell would freeze over.

Or it wouldn't.

And this is pretty much all the best minds in economics really know about what would happen if Proposition 200 had its intended effect.

Or, for that matter, about the issue at the core of Prop 200: the actual cost-benefits to Arizona of illegal immigration.

"Anybody who says they've got more than an educated guess on the impact of illegal immigration on Arizona is just full of it," says Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego and one of the top immigration researchers in the country. "The data just isn't there to make a definitive argument."

As of press time, it was still unknown if Prop 200 would pass or fail. The massive support the measure had just weeks before the election had plummeted so severely, pollsters said, that Prop 200 was no longer the lock it once was.

In reality, it matters little whether it wins or loses.

Prop 200's laws would be nearly impossible to enforce and likely would be the subject of court battles for years.

What's more important is the public sentiment behind the vote.

Arizonans want something done now about illegal immigration.

But what to do?

New Times interviewed dozens of top immigration experts and officials, pored over raw economic numbers as well as thousands of pages of the best immigration research around, talked to real Americans, real illegals, and real politicians, and, in the end, came to the same dreary conclusion as Cornelius.

Definitive answers are rare or nonexistent.

Indeed, the only definitive statement that can be made is that no definitive statements can be made until government at all levels in Arizona begins properly collecting and analyzing data relevant to the issue of illegal immigration. The raw data needed is so sparse, in fact, that it seems as though politicians and bureaucrats are willfully keeping it sparse.

That said, educated guesses on causes, effects and solutions still can be enlightening.

And on a topic that Arizona voters now say is their greatest concern -- a topic now dominated by hot emotions, conflicting legislation, dimwitted demagoguery and knee-jerk political correctness -- educated guesses are the best we have.


State Representative Russell Pearce was co-chairman of the Yes on Prop 200 committee.

For the majority of Arizona political leaders, and most knowledgeable voters near the center, that fact alone should have inspired a no vote on Proposition 200.

Pearce is considered right even among Mesa Mormon right-wingers. In last year's Legislature, he was a leader of a staunch conservative bloc always at odds with the governor and moderates in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

But Pearce has his supporters. And, like his old employer, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, he is a master of the language of the tough-on-crime Everyman Populist, a political stance that has expanded his influence in the sprawling retirement communities in and around the Valley.

Proposition 200 was the perfect fit for Arpaio's former chief deputy. The issue rolls seamlessly into Pearce's hard-line ideas about crime and punishment. "Securing our borders," as he and others like to say, is a big part of that. The idea that terrorists could be crossing in the mix adds even more traction to his campaign.

Indeed, his moral political minority may no longer be a minority by next year.

"I've been out speaking with people, and I continue to hear the same thing," Pearce says to New Times. "Our country is being destroyed. And we're sick of politicians standing around watching it happen. It's time to do something. And that's what we're doing."

Yes, he's doing something. Even he admits he's not sure what effect his ideas would have. He knows he doesn't have a solution to illegal immigration. Never said he did. Prop 200 was more of a message.

Proposition 200 was based on a pair of assumptions:

One, that illegal immigrants are voting illegally.

This notion appears to be absurd. No election officials interviewed in several polling locations in the state report any cases of election fraud by illegal immigrants.

Two, that illegal immigrants are obtaining social services intended for citizens.

This is certainly true, and probably costing Arizonans hundreds of millions of dollars. Prop 200 advocates estimate $1.4 billion.

However, most of the expensive social services received by illegal immigrants are services that, by federal law, must be given to them or to their American-born children, who are by law American citizens.

The idea behind Proposition 200 is that people voting, registering to vote or applying for "public benefits" would have to prove their U.S. citizenship in Arizona.

Which, experts agree, probably would do little more than drive up the price for the fraudulent documents that most illegal immigrants already have.

What's more, "public benefit" is not defined further. The vagueness of that term most likely would spawn lawsuits and court challenges.

Also troubling: Government workers could be fined, jailed or sued if they failed to report suspected illegal immigrants. Workers at all levels of government would need to be trained in complicated immigration law so they can avoid prosecution and become, essentially, immigration police.

State officials estimate it would cost at least $27 million to implement Pearce's ideas.

"It's just a mess," says Alfredo Gutierrez, a longtime state Democratic party leader and one of the leading voices against the new law.

Again, though, the ins and outs of the proposition aren't the real issue. Pearce says the proposition's biggest job is to send the message that Arizonans (perhaps representing the American public) adamantly want illegal immigration addressed forcefully at all levels of government. They want something done to slow down those four million illegal immigrants estimated to be crossing the southern U.S. border each year.

The problem, as has been true throughout history, is that the issue of immigration isn't as black and white as politicians make it. Especially in Arizona.


Some background: Arizona used to be part of Mexico. In 1848, the United States won the Mexican-American War and, with that, the chance to buy Arizona and the rest of the desert Southwest from Mexico for $15 million. The Gadsden Purchase added the rest of present-day Arizona five years later.

In the 1850s and 1860s, Southern Democrats, a smaller number of Lincoln Republicans, and a few other groups began running out to the area to fight for control of the political future of the state. Mixed in with their politics and faiths was a desire to become prosperous. Also, they came out with a lot of other people who just wanted to be prosperous.

They bought up land and mining claims and built businesses next to Mexicans, who were doing the same thing based on the same desires and goals.

Some of these capitalists did well and hired more and more rural working-class Mexicans.

Then the copper and silver mines grew, sometimes out of old Spanish mines, and farms grew, sometimes out of old Hohokam Indian fields. Then water came. Then the military bases came. Then air conditioning came. Then good roads came, and then better cars came. Then hotels came. Then golf got big. Then California got more expensive. Then the Valley of the Sun began receiving more new residents than any metropolis in the country.

All this created a unique economy based heavily on labor-intensive work in the killer Arizona sun. For a profit to be made, workers doing that work had to come cheap. Mines, ranches, cotton farms, hotels, restaurants, golf courses and housing construction all flounder if the difficult front-line labor positions get too expensive to fill.

And all through this, the economy of Mexico continued to flounder, so people came north to prosper.

But that antebellum Southern mindset from Arizona's territorial days seems to linger:

"Cheap seasonal labor -- yes. Live among us -- no," says author and ASU historian Jack August. "Thus, [Prop 200] is not a departure from the exclusionist social and political culture of 19th-century Arizona."

Then, in 1993, Silvestre Reyes, chief of the Border Patrol at El Paso, Texas, implemented a two-week test project called "Operation Blockade." Four hundred Border Patrol agents were deployed around the clock in full view along a central 20-mile segment of the border separating the El Paso area and Juárez.

The project so dramatically reduced illegals crossing into El Paso that it became a permanent policy. And Reyes became a congressman.

The same policy was used in San Diego. Success again.

The problem was that, viewed holistically, the plan actually did little to curb illegal crossings. It just forced immigrants who had crossed near San Diego to cross farther east, and those crossing at El Paso to cross farther west.

A new El Paso del Norte formed between El Paso and San Diego in the late 1990s. With blockades and decreased interior enforcement, the best path from Mexico into the United States became a long walk through the Sonoran Desert toward Phoenix, where immigrants could find transportation to wherever they might find work.

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.

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.

"We know very little about impacts on the state level," Camarota tells New Times. "Besides that, Arizona's relationship with Mexican immigrants is different than that of most states."

Prop 200 supporters such as Pearce say that illegal immigrants cost Arizonans $1.4 billion a year, a number based on research by the Federation for Immigration Reform, a primary backer of the legislation.

The odds of that figure being close to correct are low. Pearce believes the number is "far too conservative," while several researchers interviewed for this article believe it's far too high -- if there's even any cost at all.

"Those numbers are flawed," says UC-San Diego's Cornelius, "because they are based on a series of assumptions that just aren't true. For one, that study attributes to illegal immigrants costs that would accrue anyway. It throws in fire and police costs acting like we'd fire a bunch of firemen and police officers once illegal immigrants disappeared. This doesn't fit with reality."

More important, Cornelius points out, "most studies don't try to look at the benefits. Especially in Arizona, that's something you must consider."

He says these are the hard-to-quantify benefits of the children and grandchildren of immigrants often attaining higher levels of schooling and pay than their ancestors.

Camarota's study, based on the methodology of a landmark 1997 National Research Council study, does, however, reach some conclusions based on fairly reliable federal data.

Among the findings:

Houses headed by illegal immigrants cost the federal government $26.3 billion in services, while illegal immigrants pay in $16 billion in taxes. That's a net federal loss of $10.3 billion, or $2,700 per illegal immigrant.

Most of the costs are because of immigrants' American-born children, who are awarded U.S. citizenship at birth. (Thus, Camarota points out, efforts such as Prop 200 to block illegals from government programs will have little effect because their children who are citizens still will be able to gain access to the programs.)

On average, the costs that illegal households impose on federal coffers are less than half that of other households (an average legal household costs the government $15,101 a year). But the tax payments of illegals are only a quarter that of an average legal household, which pays in $15,099.

Here's the intriguing part:

If illegal aliens were given amnesty, a plan that has some support in both parties, the cost to taxpayers per household for the about eight million newly legalized citizens would nearly triple, from $2,700 to $7,700, for a total net cost of $29 billion.

Costs would increase dramatically, Camarota says, because unskilled immigrants with legal status -- what most illegal aliens would become -- can access government programs but still would tend to make very modest tax payments. Although legalization would increase average tax payments by 77 percent, the study predicts, average costs would rise by 118 percent.

Therefore, the only sensible purely economy-based policy would be to limit illegal immigrants by increasing border enforcement and, more important, begin enforcing federal laws barring businesses from hiring illegal immigrants, laws that now go virtually unenforced.

"We have been directed to focus on the border," Russell Ahr, an agent and spokesman for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in Arizona, informs New Times.

"Real workplace enforcement would be critical to any serious policy to limit illegal immigration," Camarota says.

And here you begin to see the rift that has opened between policy and reality, between policy-makers and their constituents.

That rift starts in the workplace.


Deep inside the economic numbers is one of the dirty little secrets of illegal immigration.

Without illegal immigrants, America's Social Security and Medicare systems would be in much worse shape than they already are.

Camarota estimates that illegal immigrants pump a net benefit of $7 billion a year into Social Security and Medicare funds.

Here's what's happening:

The majority of illegal immigrants actually work "on the books," meaning they work for companies that send a percentage of their paychecks to Social Security and Medicare.

Weakened federal immigration laws, and the lack of workplace enforcement of these laws, make it easy for an illegal immigrant to get hired and for an employer to avoid punishment. Basically, if an illegal immigrant has a Social Security card, fraudulent or not, the employer can hire him and say he or she was shown proper documentation.

These fraudulent Social Security cards are actually a boon for the federal government.

That's because illegal immigrants are paying into Social Security and Medicare with no hope of ever collecting from those federal programs upon retirement.

New Times found that Social Security officials do an excellent job of avoiding policies that might stop this lucrative fraud.

For example, employers don't have to verify that a Social Security number given to them by an employee is legitimate.

The worker just starts working and the employer starts sending money to the federal government from the employee's paycheck under the worker's name and Social Security number.

"I truly believe that the majority of employers try to audit for fraud," says Marshall Whitehead, an immigration attorney who sits on the immigration subcommittee of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. "But there's no doubt it's not always that way. If you're short workers, you can get to where you hire whoever walks through the door with what look like the minimum number of proper documents."

Once a year, Social Security officials run names and numbers from W-2 forms against names and numbers in their database. If numbers don't match, the earnings in those accounts go into "suspend mode" and a letter is sent out to each employer.

According to Leslie Walker, a Social Security spokeswoman, about 130,000 letters go out to employers regarding nearly 7.5 million workers each year. She was unable to give numbers specific to Arizona.

The employer is told to send the employee to the nearest Social Security office to rectify the problem.

According to immigration officials and to several illegal immigrants interviewed, the employee probably never goes to the Social Security office.

"You become someone else," says an undocumented worker looking for day-laborer work along Arizona Avenue in Chandler.

In time, the money collected by the federal government on the fraudulent number is released unencumbered into the general fund.

It's like free money. Or, as some see it, a sort of de facto fee to the United States for working here illegally.

Social Security officials make no effort to track employers with unusually large numbers of unmatched Social Security numbers. Indeed, when asked by New Times for a list of employers in Arizona who received letters, Walker said, "There's no way for us to break down such data."

Several other Social Security officials told New Times the same thing.

Regarding illegal immigration, then, it's clear that the only widespread and fully enforced policy is the policy of looking the other way.


In late August, a satirical movie opened in Phoenix called A Day Without a Mexican.

The premise: If all the illegal immigrants from Mexico left one day, the United States would grind to a halt.

While the premise may not be true for the whole country, it's far more likely that it's true for Arizona.

"I'd venture to say the state would collapse," says David Jones, president and CEO of the Arizona Contractors Association.

Two Scottsdale resort managers, who wished not to be identified, concurred.

"We'd go kaput pretty fast," one says. "We're not hiring people we know are here illegally. But you know they're somewhere in the mix. And you know they have to be in the mix [for our business to survive]."

In reality, according to many local businessmen, several of Arizona's industries are in bad shape even if the current population of immigrants, illegal or not, does not increase.

"I'd say we're as close as 10 years away from a very serious worker shortage in Arizona," says Marshall Whitehead, the immigration attorney and Arizona Chamber leader. "It's going to get particularly bad in skilled positions in construction."

Nearly 46,000 houses are being built each year in Arizona.

The average age of the American construction worker is now 51 years old, nearly a decade older than the average in the 1980s.

What this means, Jones says, is that young Americans are no longer becoming construction workers at a rate that keeps pace with the construction getting done in the country, especially in the Valley.

Jones says the decrease fits with the change in American values and demographics. Fewer Americans live on farms, where craftsmanship and handiwork are valued, and more Americans believe going to college is a prerequisite for a prosperous and successful life.

"Starting with the baby boomers, there came a stigma with not going to college," says Jones, a former state representative and manager of two large construction companies in Indiana before moving here. "That motivation in this country has been lost to pass on or learn the skilled crafts."

Not so in rural Mexico.

"What you often see coming from Mexico is a young man who has spent much of his life proudly working with his hands on a farm or a ranch," Jones says. "They have skills that Americans no longer have. And because of their backgrounds, they're often much closer to being skilled construction workers than most Americans."

At some point in the near future, Jones says, the United States will need to set up a "functional guest worker program" of some sort.

"Otherwise, be prepared to take five years building your house," he says.

Neither Jones nor Whitehead, nor anyone else, for that matter, can estimate how much of the construction or hospitality industries -- or any other blue-collar industry in the Valley -- is made up of undocumented workers.

Guesses range everywhere from 10 percent to 30 or 40 percent.

Amid unlicensed contractors, which Jones estimates do about $25 million of work a year in the Valley, he ventures that about 90 percent are undocumented.

These are the guys state construction regulators claim they want to see gone.

"They're not paying taxes, they're not insured, and they're not carrying the same safeguards," says Israel Torres, Arizona's Registrar of Contractors. "The whole industry gets hurt when people go for the blue-light special."

But Arizonans do go for the blue-light special. And so do some Arizona businesses. And this cash economy, more so than on-the-books payments to federal funds, is where Arizona citizens may see the biggest direct benefit from illegal immigration.

Who's your nanny?

Your lawn guy? Pool guy? Bug guy? Landscaper? Do you grab a few day laborers for projects around the house?

"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.

"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.

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.

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 robert.nelson@newtimes.com, or call 602-744-6549.

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