By Jim Schutze
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They charged human smugglers "taxes" to use their routes across the border. Or they contracted with human-smuggling rings to move loads of pollos collected from border towns.
And the style of violence that is common in parts of Mexico—where people are gruesomely murdered in broad daylight in public squares—started to seep across the border into Arizona.
Governor Jan Brewer, among other Arizona politicians, would like the nation to believe that average illegal immigrants are the driving force behind rampant violent crimes in Arizona.
During a televised gubernatorial debate, Brewer said, "The majority of the people that are coming to Arizona and trespassing are...drug mules."
She and others have no statistics, reports or evidence, but perpetuate the notion that all illegal immigrants have direct links to drug cartels, work as drug mules or choose to come here to wallow in lives of crime and violence.
Yet Arizona isn't under attack from average illegal immigrants, who come here to find employment that is virtually nonexistent in Mexico and most of Central America. In fact, it is the immigrants who are under attack—from Mexican cartels, from coyotes, from Arizona and from the federal government.
Russell Pearce, the state senator who authored Arizona Senate Bill 1070, has proclaimed that neighborhoods in the state will be safer when all undocumented immigrants are labeled by statute as criminals. His bill sought to help ensure that, but the heart of 1070 was stymied by U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton in a ruling that is certain to be appealed.
Besides, law enforcement authorities, including Phoenix police Chief Jack Harris, think 1070 will make it even harder for cops to do their jobs. Already, the victims of smugglers are reluctant to report crimes to police. If all of 1070 goes into effect, even more violent crime will operate under the radar of law enforcement.
Senator Pearce argues that smugglers will be afraid to come into Phoenix with 1070, but why would they when they have been able to elude police so effectively? The Pearce-inspired statute, many cops say, will only make departments, particularly Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's, go after law-abiding immigrants (maids, gardeners, tree-trimmers, restaurant workers) all the more, leaving violent smugglers to carry on as usual.
Despite what many law-enforcement professionals profess, Pearce insists that if Arizona makes itself as inhospitable to immigrants as possible, all but an insane few will stop coming to the United States illegally.
Pearce shrieks that anybody who wants to come here must do so through legal channels. What he and other zealots ignore is that it's virtually impossible for Mexicans and Central Americans to emigrate here legally.
U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, the federal agency that processes U.S. permanent-residency applications, is just now working on applications filed in 1994 by Mexican nationals seeking visas or green cards. These people who followed the rules already have waited 16 years.
This is too long for immigrants to endure, according to Phoenix immigration attorney Jared Leung, when they need employment to feed their families or are desperate to reunite with loved ones already here.
"Everyone is for family unity, whether you are pro-immigration or anti-immigration. It is our nature to want to be with our families," says Leung. "But for some people, getting family unity [means] almost a 20-year wait.
"Whether it's parents wanting to be with children who were born here, or parents bringing in children they left behind," Leung says, "no law is going to be strong enough to keep them apart."
Federal law allows 26,260 people from Mexico to receive visas each year. There are more than 1.1 million Mexicans on a waiting list.
An application process to become a legal U.S. resident that can take two decades to get processed, Leung argues, isn't a practical alternative to hiring a coyote. He says the federal government has created no incentive for immigrants to follow the rules.
Feeble attempts at reform have gone nowhere, or they have been met with fierce resistance. Consider the furor caused recently when a Republican senator released a White House internal memo outlining some administrative actions available to the president to address immigration issues now, instead of waiting for comprehensive reform to make it through Congress.
It had conservative groups and politicos up in arms, claiming President Barack Obama is attempting to grant amnesty to every illegal immigrant in the country. In reality, the suggestions in the memo ran along the lines of possibly allowing immigrants to attain legal status if their spouse, parents or children are U.S. citizens serving in the military.
Even a proposal by U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-New York) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) that was hailed as a bipartisan approach to comprehensive immigration reform hasn't gone anywhere. It proposed some solutions that include creating a process for admitting temporary workers, plus what the senators called a "tough but fair path to legalization for those already here."
Until changes are made at a federal level—not with a patchwork of rules that merely shift illegal immigrants from state to state—the opportunities that the United States offers immigrants will be too strong a force for border agents to overcome, critics of U.S. border policy like Leung believe.