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U.S.: Arizona Feels the Heat of Immigration Debate

Valeria Fernández

PHOENIX, Arizona, Apr 21 2009 (IPS) - Thousands of people poured into the streets of Phoenix this past Sunday in one of several nationwide marches scheduled through May to pressure President Barack Obama to act on immigration reform.

Thousands of people marched on Apr. 19 through the streets of Phoenix in support of Pres. Obama's announced commitment to reform immigration policy this year. Credit: http://www.josemunozphotos.com

Thousands of people marched on Apr. 19 through the streets of Phoenix in support of Pres. Obama's announced commitment to reform immigration policy this year. Credit: http://www.josemunozphotos.com

A Congressional debate is expected later this year, but Obama’s renewed public commitment to the issue has ignited hope among immigrant rights advocates.

“We want the president to help us. He’s our only hope so we can come out of the shadows,” said Josefina Moreno, 52, an undocumented worker living in the U.S. for over 16 years who marched with her granddaughter.

The march had an extra sense of urgency for immigrants in Arizona like Moreno who live in fear of being deported by the local police and separated from their families.

Arizona has become ground zero for the nation’s divisive immigration debate. The border state is the gateway for half of all human and drug smuggling into the rest of the nation. A crackdown on immigrant workers by the local Maricopa County Sheriff has resulted in allegations of racial profiling that are currently being investigated by the federal Department of Justice.

“There’s been a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment here in Arizona. For people to come out today and demonstrate publicly that they’re ready to see changes testifies to their commitment and courage,” said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, a union that has been organising other marches across the country.

Similar rallies are expected during the next couple of weeks in Texas, California and New York to keep pressure on the new administration.

Advocates for immigration reform argue that bringing immigrants out of the shadows will lessen abuse of workers and improve wages. Most of them support some form of legalisation for the estimated 12 million immigrants that live in the country. Meanwhile, opponents blame illegal immigration for draining state coffers, increased healthcare costs, crime and taking away jobs from U.S. citizens.

“We’ll not stop and we will not rest until we have immigration reform in this country,” said Rodriguez.

Supporters of comprehensive reform might be in for a long fight. Some political observers argue the floundering economy and concerns about spillover violence from drug cartels coming from Mexico will colour the debate.

“I don’t think Congress should tackle it this year, we’re not ready,” Arizona senator Jon Kyl told IPS. Kyl sponsored – without success – an immigration bill in 2007 that included some form of legalisation for undocumented workers.

“The people who defeated it last time are going to have a good argument that we haven’t done everything we could do to secure the border,” he said.

On Monday, Kyl joined fellow Arizona Senator John McCain and Joe Lieberman, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, for a field hearing on border violence in Phoenix.

Phoenix’s status as the second-worst kidnapping capital of the world after Mexico City has fuelled fears of organised crime spilling over from the neighbour to the south into the interior of the United States.

During 2008, Phoenix police investigated 368 kidnappings, mostly related to drug activities and human smuggling.

Despite concerns of spillover violence from Mexico, law enforcement agents testified that most of it has been felt by undocumented immigrants or those involved in illegal trafficking, without affecting average residents.

Phoenix police chief Jack Harris estimated that over 100 drop-houses operate in the city on a yearly basis. Migrants are held captive in these houses by smugglers who threaten to kill them if their family doesn’t meet monetary demands.

“We need to find a way for these people to come legally. This is one of the most significant things Congress can do,” said Harris.

But opinions are split in Arizona over how to deal with the situation.

“It is time for the federal government to address the immense fiscal burden that border states are unfairly shouldering in combating illegal immigration,” said Arizona Governor Jan Brewer during the committee hearing.

The Republican governor believes the solution to curb the problems associated with smuggling would be to secure the border by adding 250 members of the National Guard. The idea is currently under review by the Obama administration for the entire border, said Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) Janet Napolitano during a visit to Nogales, Arizona last week.

Immigration reform supporters are hopeful that Obama will revisit some of the more controversial measures from the previous presidency when it comes to immigration policies, such as delaying worksite raids of immigrant workers, and reviewing 287(g) agreements that allow local enforcement to implement immigration law.

During Obama’s recent visit to Mexico with his counterpart Felipe Calderón, immigration reform talks didn’t take centre stage as expected. Instead the focus was on border violence.

The U.S. has approved 400 million dollars as part of the Merida Initiative, a joint three-year venture with Mexico to help fight drug cartels.

Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano announced the appointment of Alan Bersin, a former Justice Department official, as the new “border czar” who will be responsible for confronting the problems related to drug violence and illegal immigration along the border.

“What Napolitano is doing is the right step. We need a stronger border,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a non-partisan pro-immigrant advocacy organisation based in Washington. Noorani also believes any reform plan should include a way to legalise undocumented workers.

Many border reform activists remain sceptical of an increased alignment of the Obama administration with previous policies to militarise the border.

“Border security has only brought us border insecurity,” said Isabel Garcia, attorney and director of Derechos Humanos, a border coalition that advocates for immigrant human rights.

Garcia argued that since border enforcement increased in the 1990s, Arizona turned into the nation’s funnel for human and drug smuggling. The policy drove hundreds of immigrants to desolate areas of the Sonoran desert, causing the loss of many lives, said Garcia.

Some observes believe Congress will not reach consensus this year on reform.

“This will be at their own political risk,” said Alfredo Gutierrez, former Arizona senator and editor of La Frontera Times, an online site focused on national immigration news.

Gutierrez pointed out the importance of Hispanic voters – a group for whom immigration reform is a priority – as crucial to the election of Obama in various battleground states.

“I think that he (Obama) is going to be reminded and Hispanic congressman that you can’t keep raising the expectations of the people and keep ignoring them,” he said.

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