Stick and Move

Written by Niki D"Andrea Category: Hot Topics Issue: September 2014
Group Free

As children from Central America pour over U.S. borders, the debate about immigration reform and enforcement reaches pugilist-pitch in Arizona.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the verbal-sparring championships of the border! In this corner, wearing blue trunks and fighting for reform, are pro-immigration forces. In the other corner, wearing red trunks and fighting for border security, are pro-enforcement factions. And in the middle, weighing 800 pounds, is the “gorilla in the room,” accompanied by 60,000 children from Central America...

arizona border, illegal immigration

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the verbal-sparring championships of the border! In this corner, wearing blue trunks and fighting for reform, are pro-immigration forces. In the other corner, wearing red trunks and fighting for border security, are pro-enforcement factions. And in the middle, weighing 800 pounds, is the “gorilla in the room,” accompanied by 60,000 children from Central America...

Though the boxing match above is metaphorical, the current rumble over immigration is very real, and maybe even more of a finger-pointing, blame-placing throwdown than ever before.   

When busloads of children from Central America began arriving by the thousands at U.S. borders this spring, it widened the divide in the debate about immigration and border security, particularly in border states like Arizona, which has always been a hotbed of hotheads on both sides of the issue. But while the surge of Central American children at the border has reignited debate, it’s also pretty much killed any chance of reform – i.e. the normalization of the nation’s estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants – in the foreseeable future.

Not that federal immigration reform was all that plausible before the current border crisis. When Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who many viewed as an advocate for immigration reform, lost his seat as House Majority Leader in June, it seemed a death knell for bipartisan negotiations on potential legislation. A tug-of-war between the Senate and the House ensued, with upper-house lawmakers – including Arizona Republicans Jeff Flake and John McCain – pushing a “Gang of 8” reform bill, crafted by senators from both major political parties. The House refused to vote on the bill, with some members of Congress complaining the “Gang of 8” reform bill prioritized legal status of immigrants over border security. Congressman Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) refers to the bill as “an atrocity that contaminated the waters of discussion on immigration reform.”

Then came the flood of children from Central America to the borders of California, Texas and Arizona, and President Barack Obama’s request for $3.7 billion in funds to address the crisis. At press time, Republicans in Congress were refusing to consider his request until a 2008 federal law that helped facilitate the current mass migration is amended to stem the flow – a condition that doesn’t sit well with House Democrats, who planned to introduce their own proposal at press time.

The future of federal immigration reform – and its impact in Arizona, a state that’s always resisted what it sees as federal imposition on its state rights – looks quite complicated and contested. As usual. Everybody’s gloved up, and proposed fight plans range from establishing protection camps in Guatemala to sending troops to the U.S. border.

So what’s the federal government’s – and Arizona’s – next move in this fight over immigration? A lot is at stake, and pretty much anything – including nothing – could happen.

Weigh-in: The Tale of the Tape
Like the pre-fight hype of a press conference, the setup for the current debate about immigration reform involves a lot of back-and-forth smack-talking. The “back” part extends to President Bush, who signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) near the end of his administration in 2008. Designed to protect children from being trafficked to the U.S. from Central America, the law dictates that unaccompanied minors who arrive at the U.S. border cannot be turned back, but must be turned over to the Office of Refugee Relocation (ORR), or to a family member, if they have one already residing in the United States. At the ORR, unaccompanied minors must be given food, shelter, medical attention and education within 72 hours, and priority process to determine if the child is eligible for asylum – which could take years, especially when more than 70,000 children are expected to arrive at the border by year’s end.

Why are they coming in such large numbers right now? Most people point to the violent climate in the Central American countries from which the majority of the current surge of children emanates: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But they also point to the TVPRA.“I think two things are going on with the moms and the kids coming to the border. The first thing is, they probably are hearing that they’ll get permission to stay here. That’s the first thing,” says veteran Valley journalist Terry Greene Sterling, who’s covered immigration issues for more than 15 years for media including Newsweek. “The second thing is, the gangs are horrendous in Central America. I’ve interviewed kids who have escaped gangs and who have gotten political asylum, because the gangs recruit you, and if you don’t want to do it, they’ll kill you.”

Others blame the recent migrant boom on President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), though none of the children currently arriving at the border would be eligible. Implemented in 2012, DACA applies prosecutorial discretion to undocumented children who have resided in the U.S. since at least 2007. Opponents of DACA say many of the current Central American immigrants may be coming under the false impression they’ll get deferred removal action under Obama’s memorandum.

While the wave of underage immigrants from Central America is acknowledged as a humanitarian crisis, others also mention the improbability that every single child coming over the border is in danger of being trafficked or eligible for asylum. Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute, a New York-based, nonpartisan think tank, says initial data show that 80 percent of the children coming here recently have relatives already in the states. “The sad thing is that immigration reform, strangely, is connected to this crisis,” Chishti says. “One of the reasons a lot of kids are taking these risks to come up here is because many of them have either one or both parents here. And these people are undocumented – they are part of the 11.5 million undocumented workers in this country.”

Pulling no punches, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu – a leading voice of border enforcement – says, “I want to point to Mexico. Mexico has 40 to 50 million children under the age of 18, who can arguably make the very same claim under the asylum and refugee law, because the violence in Mexico over the past six years – with 60,000-plus people killed, murdered through the drug cartel violence – that violence dwarfs the violence of Central America. So will this occur, and would President Obama ever turn back 100,000 or 700,000 juveniles who make this same claim from Mexico or other countries? No chance that would ever happen. He would never turn them back. This is why this is an emergency that must be acted upon immediately.”

Jab: Executive Action
Most pundits enter the ring with the argument that the federal government must act first on immigration.

“Despite what Governor Perry did in Texas, about the National Guard troops being dispatched, it really is still not a province of the states to deal with this kind of issue. Because border enforcement, immigration enforcement in general, is the prerogative and responsibility of the federal government,” Chishti says. “If there was ever any doubt about that... the doubt started hugely in your state of Arizona, by passing important state laws in 2007 (Arizona Employer Sanctions Law) and 2010 (SB 1070) on the ability of the states to regulate immigration – and that debate, as controversial and as charged as it was, has essentially concluded. The Supreme Court said immigration is, fundamentally, a federal issue. States can have a role in it, but a minimal role, and sort of related to how you treat immigrants, and to the extent that there’s any enforcement, it has to be done in collaboration with the federal government.”

Sterling concurs. “The bottom line here is, Arizona really can’t do much anymore. Because all its enforcement activities have virtually been found to be unconstitutional, most of them,” she says. “It’s in the hands of the federal government. If they want to change the laws... it’s got to happen on a federal level.”

“From everything that I’ve read... it looks like the government is stalemated, and is not going to act on immigration reform,” Sterling continues. “Which leaves us with the next option, which is President Obama can do a lot of things by executive order.”

What exact executive action Obama might take is anybody’s guess, but most theories involve some sort of deferred action, and the expectation that any potential executive action would take place after the November elections. His immediate response to the current crisis at the border was to ask Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds, to expedite the processing of the children arriving at the border. His request had yet to be granted at press time, partly because Republicans in Congress pushed back with a concession to amend Bush’s 2008 law to stifle the migrations, and also partly because a portion of the funds ($1.8 billion) were to be used for Health and Human Services to provide shelter and care for the immigrants. The rest was reportedly bound for the bottlenecked immigration courts.

“If you choose to fight in immigration court, you can stay here for a few years, because the courts are so backlogged,” Sterling says. “That’s why Obama wants some of that money, to get more judges and more prosecutors. But if you’re an immigrant, you have to pay for your own lawyer. So the money would go not to immigrant lawyers, but to more judges and prosecutors.”

Chishti agrees with the need for more money for more judges, and the need for an expedited legal process. “Once these people are here, we have the law,” he says. “We have to make sure those people who are just trying to get here to be able to stay here and nothing else, that those people are sent back. So that creates a lesson for people that ‘Just because you make it here, you’re not going to be able to stay here for very long.’ And only those people who truly are fleeing persecution and deserve our protection, those people get our protection. And that process should happen up front. If that gets delayed, then it creates incentive for more and more people to come, to stay and then to keep on coming. So that typically means getting more judges who can process these claims faster than they’re being done today.”

“We could even start processing these people abroad,” Chishti suggests. “If someone is fleeing Guatemala, we should be able to put them in some sort of protection camp in Guatemala. They don’t all need to come to the United States. It’s a global responsibility. It’s not just our responsibility. United Nations should be involved in it, the UNHCR (U.N. Refugee Agency) should be involved in it. If there are camps that have to be set up in these countries, that’s a good thing to do. So they’re protected, but that doesn’t mean they’re protected in Los Angeles or Phoenix.”

Whether Obama will take executive action to circumvent refusals from Congress is debatable. “It was thought that he would, this fall, actually, take some executive action,” Senator Jeff Flake says. “I think the border kids crisis made that less likely, far less likely – because of the perception that the earlier executive orders contributed to the problem that we have. So it would be difficult, I think, for the president to move ahead on his own.”

Punch: Troops at the Border
Some people – including Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu and Republican Congressman Paul Gosar – don’t want to have a discussion about immigration reform until the border is secure. And though illegal immigration rates have dropped – from an average of 1.7 million apprehensions by Border Patrol each year from 1990 to 2007 to a low of 365,000 in 2012 – there are still major dangers for law enforcement at the border, according to Babeu.

“What I have demanded is: Secure the border first. Because clearly, we do not have border security. The last figures published for the Tucson sector – 123,000 illegals were apprehended here,” he says. “Our county had the largest drug bust in the history of the state – $2-$3 billion, 76 Sinaloa Cartel members with 108 weapons were apprehended right here. And we had cartel scouts on mountains that were arrested just recently. This is all proof that the border’s not secure. I’m not willing to have this discussion or conversation about ‘What do we do with the 11 to 20 million illegals here?’ until we have legitimate, real border security.”

“There’s one approach to enforcing the law – having consequences for violating the law – and it should be addressed nationally. I don’t believe that will ever happen, with President Obama,” Babeu continues. “And that’s why I have encouraged [Arizona governor candidate] Christine Jones, and have publicly encouraged the four Southwest border state governors to take these matters into their own hands, to deploy armed National Guard soldiers to the border.” (Two of Jones’ fellow Republican candidates for governor, Doug Ducey and Andrew Thomas, also endorse using National Guard troops at the border).

Gosar, who recently returned from a trip to Central America, says, “You have to get back to the rule of law. We’ve heard it over and over again – in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemela – that we have to have the rule of law, we have to abide by it, even to the smallest detail. Then we have to have security – know who comes in, know who leaves, and empower people to do the right thing, to do the right process, to be involved in the right type of jurisdictions and be great citizens, or great visitors. One of the two. But it always starts with border security.”

Speaking about some of the pre-election campaign rhetoric he’s heard around the state, Todd Landfried of Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform says, “If you look at some of the gubernatorial candidates, talking about using satellites and flying drones and putting guardsmen on the border... every time Arizona tries to insert itself into federal responsibility, it’s shot down.”

Then there is the Minuteman Project, led by former U.S. Marine Jim Gilchrist, which is recruiting a reported 3,500 “armed citizens” to patrol sections of the U.S. border from California to Texas, including Arizona. The group’s made headlines here before, when it first camped out in the southern part of the state to look for Mexican migrants in 2005.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection cautioned that any private group taking action near the border could have “disastrous personal and public safety consequences.”

Counter-Punch: Job Centers at the Border
The Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform (AZEIR) have a more “workable” vision. “We’ve been very consistent over the years in what we’ve been asking for, and it’s not just visa reform. It’s quota reform. It’s process reform. It’s not looking at it from just a punitive standpoint,” AZEIR spokesman Todd Landfried says. “The actions that have come out of states like Arizona and Oklahoma, Texas and Georgia and South Carolina and Indiana – they’ve been punitive, but they’ve done absolutely zero to address the demand of labor. It’s really nice that you want to punish employers for hiring undocumented workers, and they should be punished. But you’re not giving the people, or the businesses, who need to find labor a means to get it. So what are we going to do?”

Landfried laments the starvation effect SB 1070 had on employers, particularly in the building industry. He sees a clearer path to legitimate immigration for workers as beneficial to all. “Sending them all back isn’t an answer. Because we need them for the economy,” he says. Ideal immigration reform to Landfried involves making it easier for employers to hire the workers they need, which he says boosts the health of the entire economy. A recent study from Regional Economic Models, Inc. states that immigration reform would boost Arizona’s economy by nearly $300 million a year, and increase personal income across the state by $168 million. “One of the things that AZEIR came up with was the idea of Ellis Island-type centers along the border. Put it on the Internet – some job board where, if employers can’t find workers, they can advertise it. Mexico does have the Internet,” he says. “There’s a lot of countries that have Internet. And let people get the job, get the papers, get everything done before they even get to the border. It’s not a hard concept. But it’s recognizing that if you want to control the border, it’s not just with guards and guns. It’s with a sensible process, of processing people who want to come here and work, and then go home.”
Gosar’s not a fan of any plan he thinks would take jobs away from American citizens. “We have a high unemployment rate. Single-parent families have the same problem. Lack of jobs,” he says. “So America’s got to refocus on what makes America great, focus on us, make sure we have the details to welcome people in the proper fashion, and utilize their talents to build America. For those who don’t want to do it the right way, we’ve got to return to the rule of law.”

Rope-a-Dope: Senate Bill
Since last spring, Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain have been trying to get a bill through Congress. The bill morphed slightly on its journey to the dead doormat of the House, but the most recent version included an amendment to the 2008 law to increase repatriation of undocumented children from non-contiguous countries; a provision for expedited removal of immigrants stopped at the border and found to be crossing illegally; an increase in the number of immigration judges to deal with the backlog of cases, as well as an increase of refugee visas (5,000 each) for El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala; and a requirement for the leaders of said countries to provide assistance in the border crisis.  

Despite some bipartisan support, the Senate immigration reform bill never made it to the House floor. “Immigration reform is a heavy lift,” Flake says. “It’s tough, and we worked for a long time to get this Senate bill through the process last year, but the House just never took it up, and when it got too close to the elections this year, it just became too much of a hot potato, unfortunately.”

Gosar is less diplomatic in his analysis of the bill’s failure. “It’s an unconstitutional bill... the Senate has not allowed us to see that bill, because it would actually be thrown in the garbage can,” he says. “Part of the problem is the contamination. The House wanted to have the conversation. The problem is, they had a loaded gun put against their head... the Senate wanted us to push a small piecemeal bill forward, and of course, the House will put money into it because it’s that important... but once it gets over, it’s stripped and there’s this egregious, unconstitutional form.”

Flake remains cautiously optimistic, but realistic. “We’ll keep trying until it’s done. We hope that just because it didn’t work this Congress, that starting in January with a new Congress and hopefully with Republicans controlling the Senate, that we can move more in concert with the House and get a bill that gets to the president’s desk,” he says. “This is a problem that’s not going to go away until we have some meaningful reform that includes border security, employer enforcement, a mechanism to deal with those here illegally and a guest-worker plan. You’ve really got to have all the elements of it.”

Asked if there’s much hope for bipartisan agreement on the issue, Gosar says “Not this year. You will not get comprehensive immigration reform in this congress. Not at all. Part of the problem is, there’s no trust in this president, no trust in the rule of law.”

Split Decision: Full Circle
“Whatever immigration reform passes, if it ever does, is not going to have everything for everybody,” Sterling says. “It’s got to be a compromise. And people just aren’t willing to compromise right now.”

But what about after the elections?  “One would have to hope that maybe after the election... that the rate of kids’ arrival will go down,” Chishti says. “The message has gotten out that ‘Hey, it’s not as easy as it was three months ago. If you come here, you may be sent back.’ So therefore people are not taking the same risks. The numbers have already gone down. So the hope is that the numbers will drop back down to normal, and people will say, ‘That was a crisis, but it’s over. Let’s move on to the larger business.’”

“From my calculation, I still think the best time to do this is 2015. In 2014, immigration as an issue does not play well in congressional districts. And not in red states. So if you’re a Republican in a red state – even if you’re a Democrat in a red state – it doesn’t play well for the individual seats. It plays much better in the presidential election,” Chishti continues. “More complicated bills get more difficult to pass in a big election year, so if you get past the 2014 election – but before the 2016 election – the only time to do this is 2015. So that may be the time when something plays out, and I think there’s a good chance of that. But there’s also the possibility that Democrats will lose the Senate. If they lose the Senate, then the thing starts all over again.”

Others agree we could conceivably end up right back where we started. Another heated draw after 12 tough rounds. “I guess the future is, Arizona’s politicians and the Latino community and the public either finally accept the fact that something must be done on the federal level to address the problem,” Landfried says, “or... we continue to try and chase our tails, pass laws that get overturned, spend money we don’t have, and get bad economic impacts, as we’ve had in the past.”

“I think the most destructive thing we can do is take sides and place blame,” Sterling says. “Because this is much bigger than blaming one person, or blaming President Bush or blaming President Obama. This is a huge, bi-national issue, and everybody’s at fault here.”

The Central American Child Immigrant Crisis
Children arrested by Border Patrol from October 2013-June 2014: 57,000
Children released to sponsors in 2014: 30,340
States with highest number of children taken in by sponsors:
Texas (4,280)
New York (3,347)
Florida (3,181)
California (3,150)
Virginia (2,234)
Maryland (2,205)
Source: U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Administration for Children and Families (July 25, 2014)


Lawful Immigration
Total number of immigrants who obtained lawful permanent resident status in 2013: 990,553
States with the highest numbers of immigrants who obtained lawful permanent resident status:
California (191,806)
New York (133,601)
Florida (102,939)
Texas (92,674)
New Jersey (53,082)
Number of immigrants who obtained lawful permanent resident status in Arizona: 16,097
Countries in which the highest number of immigrants who obtained lawful permanent resident status were born:
Mexico (135,028)
China (71,798)
India (68,458)
Philippines (54,446)
Dominican Republic (41,311)
Statistics for fiscal year 2013; source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Unauthorized Immigration
Estimated total number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S.: 11.5 million
States with the highest estimated number of unauthorized immigrants:
California (2,830,000)
Texas (1,790,000)
Florida (740,000)
New York (630,000)
Illinois (550,000)
Number of estimated unauthorized immigrants in Arizona: 360,000
Countries in which the highest number of estimated unauthorized immigrants were born:
Mexico (6,800,000)
El Salvador (660,000)
Guatemala (520,000)
Honduras (380,000)
China (280,000)
Population estimates as of January 2011; source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security