SPARRING OVER SEPARATE PROBLEMS
No one disputes that the country’s byzantine immigration system is badly in need of change, but the stark disagreement about what kind of change has halted any progress toward national reform. Arizona and some other states are screaming for more assistance with smuggling and are cracking down on illegal immigration on their own. At the same time, human-rights advocates are battling intractable deportation laws that can ensnare otherwise legitimate candidates for U.S. citizenship.
It is not uncommon for politicians to conflate the criminal challenges of illegal immigration with the legal dilemmas facing immigrant families or the businesses that rely on foreign labor. In fact, they are two separate policy problems. The current population of undocumented immigrants employed in low-skilled jobs is far removed from the human and narcotics smuggling along the Southwestern border. Illegal foreigners who have been in the country for years are far less likely to be apprehended than those tracked down in the Arizona desert.
Along the border, the story is about crime. Most of the aliens caught by the Border Patrol have past records of illegal crossings and are at least a small part of some kind of smuggling operation. The dramatic increase in deportations nationally is a direct result of the federal and state crackdowns in border areas to combat those crimes.
Conservative members of Congress have harshly criticized the Homeland Security Department for aiming its enforcement at the illegal entrants who pose a threat to national security rather than illegal immigrants as a whole. Napolitano has repeatedly reminded lawmakers that the government does not have infinite resources and that terrorists and criminals should take priority. The administration also has heeded the budget-cutting calls of Republicans in Congress and declined to ask for significant budget increases for border protection.
Sheriff Babeu scoffs at the budget excuses. “Do you know what [Napolitano] said to me directly? That Congress is into cutting. They’re not going to fund this.… When on earth has she become this fiscal conservative, saying that we’re not going to pay for this?”
Of course, Babeu knows that he will face the budget pressures if he finds himself in Congress next year, because the GOP will continue to insist on offsets for any government spending. The border fence he wants costs roughly $4 billion. Babeu says he is in a unique position to advocate for his proposal; he has considerable street cred because of his extensive on-the-ground experience both as a border enforcer and as the sheriff of a county known for its drug routes.
Babeu offers one point of view. Nogales’s Garino offers a completely different one. They talk past each other, often through the media. Each shows palpable frustration that the other does not hear him.
“I told [Babeu] that if he was so interested in getting 6,000 soldiers along the border of Nogales, that he could put them between [the Tucson area] and Pinal County,” Garino said. “And maybe let’s see how their residents feel, and let’s see how the property value drops and see how many people will visit their state, because it’s surrounded by soldiers.”
The men are textbook examples of very different sides of the immigration story. Both sides hold some truth. The story is about crime, but it is also about commerce and international relations. It is about playing high-tech spy games against smuggling rings, but it is also about dealing with human beings who are desperate enough to attempt a dangerous entry into the United States.
The agents on the border, meanwhile, are adept at tuning out the arguments. “We look at it as organized crime,” Escalante said. Their viewpoint is understandable; they routinely carry assault rifles, and the evidence room often contain 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of marijuana. (Even the surrounding offices reek of pot.)
Self says he can’t worry about the critics, many of whom don’t have the full picture of what he and his Border Patrol agents are doing. “I can’t let me or my people get focused on the immigration battle. Regardless of political climate, our mission will never change. My job is to focus on bringing border security to the nation.”
This article appears in the Feb. 18, 2012, edition of National Journal.