Alien Nation

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"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."

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Robert Nelson