The fight over immigration is a fight over identity.

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JANUARY 16, 2006

The fight over immigration is a fight over identity.

A battered yellow school bus rumbles up a bumpy dirt road on the
outskirts of Sasabe, a small Mexican town just over the border from
Arizona. At the top of the hill, the bus winds around brick and mud
huts. Ragged children stand in the doorways, and emaciated dogs
forage for scraps. The bus passes dented pickups and old cars
without wheels and stops in a dusty clearing, where it disgorges
about 40 teenagers dressed in blue jeans and carrying small
knapsacks. One boy's t-shirt features a picture of Che Guevara. A
girl's pale blue top says adorable in sequined letters. They are
subdued, almost expressionless. They mill around, waiting for the
coyotes, or smugglers, who, for a hefty fee, will take them in
pickup trucks to the border.There, they will climb through holes in the barbed wire fence
separating Mexico from the United States. Some will not make it
through the 100-plus- degree Arizona desert on the other side (from
October 2004 to October 2005, 261 would-be migrants died in the
desert before reaching Tucson or Phoenix) and about one-third of
them will be apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol. But, over the
course of a year, almost two million will make it, sometimes after
several tries, and enter the underworld of undocumented migrants:
working on farms, as day-laborers in construction, as servants and
maids, or in sweatshops and meatpacking plants. Unable to protest
mistreatment, they will be subject to abuse and exploitation, but
most of them will still fare better than if they had stayed in
their native villages.

This influx of migrants into Arizona--and the fact that many stay in
the state rather than moving north or west--has created a political
explosion. In November 2004, anti-immigration activists won a
bruising campaign to pass Proposition 200, which denies "public
benefits" to people who can't prove their citizenship, despite the
opposition of the state's congressional delegation, including
Republican Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl; Democratic Governor
Janet Napolitano; and major business groups and labor unions. Last
spring, the Minuteman Project, which George W. Bush wrote off as a
group of "vigilantes," set up shop in Tombstone, near the border,
to dramatize the failure of the Border Patrol to prevent "illegals"
from getting through. Republican state legislators, equally hostile
to McCain and Napolitano, are trying to expand Proposition 200 and
plan to make illegal immigration the focus of the 2006 elections.
"We are ground zero" in the battle over immigration, warns former
Arizona House Majority Whip Randy Graf, who spearheaded the campaign
for Proposition 200 and is now running for the Tucson-area House
seat to be vacated by Representative Jim Kolbe.

The furor over illegal immigration is sweeping the country--from
California and Washington to Virginia and Tennessee, and even up to
Vermont, New Hampshire, and Minnesota--but Arizona is indeed ground
zero, having surpassed neighboring states as the principal gateway
to the United States for illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central
America. Beltway politicians who want to clamp down on the border
claim this furor is the result, as Colorado Republican
Representative Tom Tancredo has suggested, of immigrants "taking
jobs that Americans could take." And many Americans far from the
Arizona border certainly believe that--in low-immigration West
Virginia, for example, 60 percent of respondents in a recent poll
agreed that "immigrants take jobs away from Americans." But that's
not what's happening in Arizona's citrus groves or hotels or
restaurants. And, in Arizona, those who are most up in arms over
illegal immigration are far more concerned with its sociocultural
than its economic effects. They are worried about what is commonly
called the "Mexicanization" of Arizona. That kind of cultural
concern extends to legal as well as illegal immigrants--and it
can't be easily fixed by legislation.

Mexicans began crossing the border to Arizona in the early twentieth
century to work in "the five Cs"--construction, copper, citrus,
cattle, and cotton--but, until recently, the great majority of
illegal immigrants came through California and Texas. In 1990, for
example, about 90 percent entered through those two states, while
only about 5 percent came through Arizona. But, as the uproar over
"illegals" grew--in 1994, for example, California passed
Proposition 187, denying public benefits to undocumented
workers--the Border Patrol instituted Operation Gatekeeper in
California and Operation Hold-the- Line in Texas. These programs
reduced illegal immigration to those states, but not overall.
Instead, illegal immigrants were simply diverted to Arizona's
desert border, and, between October 2004 and October 2005, about
half of the four million illegal immigrants who entered the United
States came through Arizona. According to Princeton University
sociologist Douglas Massey, about 1. 5 million of them crossed the
eastern part of the Arizona border, south of Tucson, and about
470,000 entered through the area around Yuma, near the California
border.

Going through the desert is far more dangerous than walking over a
bridge into a Texas or California border town or even fording the
Rio Grande. And it's more expensive, too. But Mexicans and other
Latinos are willing to pay the coyotes, because they hope to find
well-paying jobs in the United States. And, relative to where they
came from, they will. In 2000, according to the U.S. Department of
Agriculture (usda), a farm worker in Mexico could expect to make

$3.60 in an eight-hour day, while his counterpart in the United
States made $66.32 in the same period. The discrepancy has
increased since the North American Free Trade Agreement (nafta)
went into effect in 1994, removing tariff barriers on the
importation of U.S. farm products and decimating small farmers in
Mexico. Says Sandra Polaski, a trade expert at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, "Small farmers who produced for
subsistence but also for the market lost their market access."
According to the usda, Mexican farm income fell 4.3 percent per
year during the 1990s. Young men and women left in search of work,
and, while some of them found jobs in U.S. factories on the border
(maquiladoras), many of them crossed the border in search of
better- paying jobs.

Most of those who make it do find jobs--92 percent of males,
according to one estimate. And, with undocumented workers adding to
the normal population increase, Arizona's Latino population has
ballooned, going from 19 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2000.
Phoenix, which was once a primarily Anglo town, has gone from 20
percent to about 34 percent Latino. Says former Arizona Attorney
General Grant Woods, one of the state's prominent Republicans, "When
I was in the first grade in 1960, Phoenix was the same distance
from the border. Phoenix now feels much more like a border town
than it did even ten years ago. Billboards in Spanish, a lot of
people speaking Spanish. Most of us think this is great, but a lot
don't." This transformation in Arizona society and culture, along
with the disorder created by the dramatic rise in border-crossings,
has made immigration the biggest issue in Arizona politics.

In the 2002 gubernatorial election, when Napolitano barely edged out
Republican Representative Matt Salmon, the two candidates rarely
mentioned immigration. But, soon after Napolitano took office in
2003, she and her chief of staff, Dennis Burke, were astonished to
discover that the state's voters were preoccupied with the issue.
Says Burke, "The first time we looked at polling, the number-one
issue was immigration, not education. Then, a year and a half ago,
it got pretty visceral. It started to permeate all issues." That
was largely because political activists and conservative Republican
state legislators had begun organizing.

In July 2003, Phoenix resident Kathy McKee established the Protect
Arizona Now Committee and got a lawyer to write what became
Proposition 200, basing it on California's Proposition 187. It was
put on the November 2004 ballot. And, although almost the entire
Arizona political establishment opposed it, the measure still
garnered 56 percent. Then, last year, the state legislature passed
a raft of anti-immigrant bills, including measures to deputize local
and state police officers to enforce immigration laws and to
broaden the definition of the "public benefits" denied to illegal
immigrants under Proposition 200. Napolitano vetoed all but one of
the bills but has since backtracked in the face of growing public
pressure. And Russell Pearce, the powerful chairman of the Arizona
House Appropriations Committee--who, with Graf's departure in 2004,
has become the leader of the legislature's anti-immigrant force--is
currently championing legislation that would make English Arizona's
official language and construct a wall along the entire Arizona
border.

Graf, Pearce, McKee, and the Republican legislature have clearly
tapped a growing sentiment among the state's white voters. Wes
Gullett, a political consultant and a key adviser to John McCain,
recently conducted a poll in Cochise County, south of Tucson, to
test voter concerns. "Instead of asking what are the top three
issues," Gullett says, "we have to ask what are the top four,
because the first three are immigration. You have to ask, `What do
you care about other than immigration?' It's crazy down there."

But what, exactly, is this craziness about? In Washington,
politicians and political organizations regularly attribute the
obsession with immigration to illegal migrants taking the jobs of
native-born Americans. Tancredo makes that claim, and so do the two
leading groups advocating restrictions on immigration, the
Federation for American Immigration Reform (fair), which bankrolled
Proposition 200, and the Center for Immigration Studies. That did
happen in Midwestern meatpacking plants several decades ago, and it
may still be happening in some parts of the country, but it does
not seem to be the case in Arizona, where unemployment hovers below
5 percent and where construction, agriculture, and tourism are
plagued by acute labor shortages. Illegal immigration doesn't even
seem to be having a dramatic effect on wages, with pay for
unskilled work in Arizona regularly exceeding the minimum wage.

Unskilled workers currently make up 32 percent of Arizona's labor
force, and they are constantly in demand. Tom Nassif of Western
Growers, a trade association, recently complained that the
construction industry was "siphoning off" the migrant workers that
growers needed in the field. "Farms will not have enough workers to
harvest their crops," he warned. Meanwhile, Arizona's tourist
industry says it can't find enough workers for its hotels and
restaurants. Bobby Surber, the vice president of Sedona Center, who
runs three restaurants, two shopping plazas, and a resort, and
employs 200 people, says, "Even though we pay larger than average,
and full medical and dental, we cannot find enough employees."

Of course, Arizonans could still believe, just as Americans in West
Virginia do, that illegal immigrants threaten their jobs. And
pollsters invite this response by always asking about the economic
effect of immigration and refraining from raising uncomfortable
cultural concerns. But, in interviewing Arizonans, one rarely
encounters complaints about illegal immigrants taking jobs away.
One does hear about the cost of state services for illegal
immigrants. Indeed, even the Latinos who voted for Proposition 200
were worried about the burden that illegal immigrants were placing
on schools and hospitals. And, in border towns, crime and disorder
are pressing issues. (Some of the coyotes double as drug smugglers,
and the migrants traipse through farms and ranches.) But, among
many Arizonans, the most important issues are cultural. They fret
about "Mexicanization"--about Arizona becoming a "Third World
country" or "the next Mexifornia."

In interviews I conducted last fall, leaders of the movement to
restrict immigration usually began by expressing concerns that
illegal immigration was undermining the rule of law and allowing
terrorists to sneak across the border-- concerns they seem to
believe are most likely to win over a national audience. But they
invariably became most animated, and most candid, when talking
about what they see as the unwillingness of Mexican
immigrants--legal or illegal--to assimilate into American culture.

Connie, who doesn't want her last name used for fear of retaliation
from immigration advocates, was one of the first members of the
Minutemen. She lives in Sierra Vista, a small retirement town near
the border. Barely five feet tall, with short, graying hair, she
prides herself on her feistiness. She is now in charge of
patrolling the Nacos area near the border. She says that, at night,
she and her husband station themselves on a hill in view of the
fence and watch for "illegals." She says that she became interested
in the Minutemen because the organization was upholding the rule of
law and keeping out terrorists. "We have many apprehensions of
Pakistanis and Iraqis on the border. They are coming in disguised
as Hispanics and blending in," she says. (When I ask a human rights
worker in Sasabe if he had heard of Iraqis entering the United
States disguised as Latinos, he laughs. "The [Mexican] army is very
watchful about that kind of thing," he says.)

Connie insists that the Minutemen are neither "extremist" nor
"racist," but, as we ride along the border in her Ford Navigator,
Connie voices distinctly cultural and racial concerns. She says
that the illegals she sees coming across the border are the
"darker" Mexicans. Mexican President Vicente Fox, she says,
"doesn't want them in the country." She speculates that Mexicans
might want to take over Arizona: "In Mexico, they are taught this
land was taken from them. They are not taught they were paid tons
of money for it. There is a belief they want this back." (After
defeating the Mexican army in 1848, the United States bought all of
California and the Southwest from Mexico for

$15 million.) When I comment that California has remained in good
shape despite massive immigration, she takes exception. "California
is not a shining example," she says. "You have the Chinese, the
Vietnamese, the Russians, all these people immigrating. How many
languages do you have to have on the ballot?" Asked if she would
support McCain's proposal to allow Mexicans to enter the country
legally as guest workers, Connie demurs. "Who is going to pay for
it?" she asks. "When my grandmother came from Czechoslovakia, one
thing she did was assimilate. She was proud to be an American.
Their attitude is, `We won't assimilate.'"

That's what bothers Graf as well. "We are talking about
assimilation," says the congressional candidate, as we sit in his
East Tucson campaign headquarters. "I don't have any problem about
anyone who wants to salute our flag and learn our language and be a
citizen. What got me into the whole issue was that I was standing
in line in a Safeway, and this woman was ahead of me, and she had
an infant, and was pregnant, and her mother was with her. She was
paying for groceries in food stamps. And, when the clerk asked for
her signature, she acted like she didn't understand English, and
neither did her mother. I found it odd that an entire family could
be here on welfare and not speak any English. On welfare!"

Graf's chief ally is Pearce, who lives in the Phoenix suburb of
Mesa. Last fall, he complained to a reporter from Stateline.org
about his hometown: "It's not the Mesa I was raised in. They have
turned it into a Third World country," he said. By "they," Pearce
means Latinos in general. On his website, he warns, "Over 800,000
Americans fled California last year because LA became a clone of
Mexico City." Pearce, like Connie and Graf, envisages a cultural
conflict between the white America he grew up in and an invading
army of dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking immigrants from south of the
border.

Ray Borane, the longtime Democratic mayor of Douglas, a border town
in Cochise County, laments that Graf "represents the majority
opinion" in the state. That may be an exaggeration, given
Napolitano's and McCain's continued popularity, but Graf and his
angry allies do represent a significant segment of voters--perhaps
one-third or more--who are up in arms. And longtime observers of
Arizona politics confirm that a concern with Mexicanization lies at
the heart of their opposition to illegal immigration. "Nobody is
afraid of jobs," says Gullett, the McCain adviser. "We have got
labor demand. That's not a problem. There is no feeling that people
are losing their jobs. There is a tremendous fear that our
community and our way of life is changing." Dave Wagner, the former
political editor of The Arizona Republic, who is writing a book
about Arizona politics, says that, in Phoenix, "Mexicans and
Mexican- Americans have their own culture and stores. It is
possible if you are Spanish- speaking to disappear into that
culture. That scares the hell out of some people." Says Woods:
"Arizona has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, and a lot
of people are uncomfortable with that."

It's a discomfort that politicians like Graf and Pearce hope to take
advantage of. They want to purge the Republican Party of
pro-business conservatives like McCain, Woods, Kolbe, and Phoenix
Representative Jeff Flake, all of whom favor a guest-worker program
and some form of amnesty for undocumented workers already in the
United States. Graf ran against Kolbe, an opponent of Proposition
200, in 2004, and, in spite of being massively outspent, got 43
percent of the vote. He's running again, and, with Kolbe out of the
race, he has a decent chance of winning the Republican nomination.
Republicans in the legislature are also preparing a witches' brew
of new anti-immigrant legislation for the term that begins in
January.

And the underlying conditions that have fueled their protest and
made Arizona ground zero are likely to persist. Arizona businesses
have relied on migrant labor for 100 years. Says Phoenix College
political scientist Pete Dimas, author of Progress and a Mexican
American Community's Struggle for Existence, "Immigrants have
provided the cheap labor on which this whole part of the country
has depended." And the demand for unskilled labor is likely to
continue. According to statistics from the Department of Labor, 13
of the 20 occupations in Arizona that will experience the highest
growth from 2002 to 2012 employ unskilled workers. Many of these
jobs in food-processing or building service are now spurned by the
native-born and are filled by illegal immigrants. And, with all of
Mexico's tariffs on farm products due to disappear under nafta, and
with the Central American Free Trade Agreement going into effect,
the supply of unskilled labor looking northward is likely, if
anything, to mount.

As immigrants continue to cross the border, the "culture war" is
unlikely to abate. Connie is right. Mexican and Central American
legal and illegal immigrants probably won't assimilate in the way
her Czech grandmother did. European immigrants who came to the
United States in the last century had to travel over an ocean to
arrive here, and many of them came from countries undergoing
political or economic upheavals. Their identification with the
homeland rarely lasted past a generation. That's not as true of
Mexican or other Latino immigrants, who have their own claim on the
culture of the West.

Many of the migrant workers who crossed the border after 1848 did so
to make money to bring back home. They retained their language and
national identity. According to Douglas Massey, Jorge Duran, and
Nolan J. Malone in Beyond Smoke and Mirrors, 23.4 million of the 28
million undocumented workers who entered the United States between
1965 and 1985 returned to Mexico. What's changed in the last
decade, ironically, is that more extensive border enforcement has
discouraged illegal immigrants from returning to Mexico for fear
that they will be unable to get back into the United States. Still,
many continue to support extended families in Mexico, call
themselves Mexicans, and consider their primary language Spanish.
They are contributing to a bicultural America that stirs fear and
resentment among some native-born Americans and that will continue
to inspire calls to close the southern border.

Arizonans on both sides of the controversy are looking to Washington
for solutions. They know that states can't pass their own
guest-worker programs; nor can they police their own borders. But
there is little chance that the Bush administration and Republicans
in Congress--sharply divided between social conservatives and
business interests--will be able to pass legislation this year.
And, even if the House, the Senate, and the White House could agree
on an approach, it would not end the furor over immigration.

Last month, social conservatives in the House, led by Tancredo and
Wisconsin Representative James Sensenbrenner, passed a punitive
bill that would erect new walls along the border, make illegal
immigration a felony, and require employers to weed out illegal
workers by checking their immigration status against a national
database. In the Senate, McCain and Massachusetts Democrat Edward
Kennedy introduced a bill that is backed by business and by some
labor groups. It would let migrant workers obtain renewable
three-year visas and allow undocumented workers already in the
country to stay provided they pay a fine. McCain and Kennedy
probably can't get their bill through the Senate--too many
Republicans fear being tagged as proponents of "amnesty" for
illegal immigrants--but they could certainly muster enough votes to
prevent the Senate from passing a version of the House bill.

In the past, Bush has leaned toward McCain's approach--the president
encouraged McCain after the 2004 election to seek Kennedy's support
for a bill-- but he has recently attempted to appease social
conservatives, praising the House's measures to "protect our
borders and crack down on illegal entry into the United States."
Bush holds out hope for a Senate bill that would somehow combine
McCain's approach with Tancredo's. But that's unlikely to happen.

Even if Congress were to adopt one of these approaches--or a
combination of the two--it would not quiet the controversy.
Punitive approaches have either had unintended consequences (for
instance, encouraging illegal immigrants to stay in the United
States rather than return to Mexico) or have proved unenforceable.
Border Patrol spending has increased over 1,000 percent since 1986
without reducing border-crossings. McCain and Kennedy's approach is
far better, acknowledging the inescapable reality of Latino
immigration and its net benefit to the U.S. economy. But granting
amnesty to undocumented workers, and inviting new workers in, will
not satisfy Americans who are offended by the growing
presence--legal or illegal--of Latinos in their midst. And
combining the two proposals would more or less reproduce the
Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which hiked border
spending, threatened employer penalties, granted amnesty to
undocumented workers, and led to almost two decades of clamor over
immigration.

That furor will not abate until at least one of two conditions is
met. The first is a dramatic generational change in the cultural
attitudes of non-Latino Americans--meaning the acceptance of
biculturalism in large parts of the United States, including
Arizona. Frank Pierson, the supervising organizer of Arizona's
Valley Interfaith Network, a coalition of church and labor groups
that promotes cultural integration, wants Arizonans to adopt the
biblical tradition of showing "love for the stranger." But
non-Latino Americans probably have to reach a point where they no
longer see immigrants from south of the border as strangers at
all.

The other condition is a change in the unequal economic relationship
between the United States and its neighbors to the south, which
would reduce the supply of unskilled laborers seeking jobs in the
United States. Such a change could probably only occur if the
United States were to assume the same responsibility toward Mexico
and Central America that the more prosperous nations of Western
Europe did toward Spain, Greece, and Portugal when they wanted to
enter the European Union--granting them aid, along with protection
of their industries and agriculture, over a transitional period.

But neither condition is likely to be met in the near future.
Americans are not ready to embrace the teenagers who gathered in
Sasabe as their own, and U.S. business is not ready to see Mexico
and Central America as anything other than a platform for exports
and investment. As a result, the conflict over Latino immigration
will continue. And, if what's happening on the Arizona border is
any gauge, that's not something to look forward to.

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