In a state fiercely divided over immigration, the issue will be critical to Babeu’s election prospects. It has already borne results. He is 10 points ahead of his GOP opponents, who will square off in a primary election in August. His statements infuriate officials at Customs and Border Protection, prompting a lot of eye rolling among field agents. Babeu is unpopular in Santa Cruz County, the Democratic stronghold where Nogales is located.
Residents say that immigration hard-liners like Babeu and McCain are using their town as a backdrop for their own political purposes. Nogales is where McCain filmed his 2008 “Complete the Danged Fence” presidential-campaign ad, which featured Babeu. “He and Senator McCain walked the border here on McCain’s campaign, using our border, using our city for their political gain,” said Mayor Garino, a Democrat. “Then, people have fear of coming to Nogales.”
The political back-and-forth can get ugly. Garino publicly sneered at Babeu for referring to himself as a border sheriff, noting that Pinal County is 70 miles north. Babeu accused Garino of drinking “the Kool-Aid of Janet Napolitano” when Garino insisted that the border is secure and Nogales is safe. Garino now proudly displays a plastic Kool-Aid bottle in his office.
Nogales hosts the biggest border crossing in a state through which 24 million people and 375,000 commercial trucks enter the country annually. (In winter months, those trucks carry most of the produce consumed in the Western states.) The U.S. side of Nogales, population 20,000, relies heavily on tourism from both sides of the border. The Mexican side is home to 250,000 people, many of whom cross over daily to shop.
The town’s residents fiercely dispute Babeu’s assertion that military troops are needed along the border. Garino says media photos of National Guard troops on a lookout harm his city’s image. “In the background is Nogales.”
Olivia Ainza-Kramer, who runs the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, said that troops on the border send the wrong message about a town in which more than 20,000 people come and go every day, contributing to the local economy. “We know we have federal agents. We know we have police officers here, etc. That’s different than having a perception of a soldier; that’s how we see it. Right now, if they bring the National Guard, it’s going to be a little bit intimidating,” she said. “The perception would be different.”
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Conservatives say that troops are needed at the border because the border-protection agency is too lenient with those it captures. Babeu maintains that the agency cannot recover trust because of its past practice of returning some border-crossers to Mexico without further consequence. President Bush put the kibosh on the so-called catch-and-release practice, also called “voluntary removal,” in 2006, but critics still lambast the current White House about it.
Under the old policy, agents released some aliens inside the United States on their own recognizance to appear at later court dates; many never showed. Also, some captured aliens were “voluntarily removed” to Mexico with nothing in their records but a bookkeeping reprimand, the equivalent of a parking ticket. It’s true that some illegal crossers are still offered that option for humanitarian reasons, but it is not the default practice, as it was in the beginning of the Obama administration. As recently as December, Texas Gov. Rick Perry accused the administration of releasing illegal immigrants into the United States. “You will not see a catch-and-release program like this administration has today, where people … are caught who are illegally in this country and because they haven’t been caught in a violent situation, they’re released, released into the general population,” he said during a Republican presidential primary debate.
Perry was wrong on a number of fronts. For Mexican nationals, the voluntary-removal practice never involved freeing undocumented immigrants inside the United States; they were sent back to Mexico. Before 2006, many border-crossers of non-Mexican dissent were released in the U.S. for later court dates, simply because detention facilities were full.
Both were bad policies. Then and now, Homeland Security officials rightly note that voluntary removals did nothing to deter crossings. In fact, border agents sometimes encountered the same crossers in a single eight-hour shift. Now, to counter recidivism, those captured are frequently sent to areas hundreds of miles from where they crossed. The tactic isn’t foolproof. Border Patrol officials acknowledge that the smuggling cartels can adapt quickly and find their men, but it is one of several changes the administration has implemented to impede their operations. Babeu and other critics say that it isn’t enough.
The Obama administration has responded to critiques with harsher penalties for illegal entrants. Now, some 90 percent of those apprehended in Arizona are placed into a new and pointedly named “consequence delivery system.” The program assigns ascending levels of punishments to illegal border-crossers. Voluntary removals are now reserved only for humanitarian purposes and for people who don’t pose an obvious threat (children, pregnant women, the elderly).