The Border War

Immigration was supposed to be one of the top issues on the agenda when the leaders of the United States, Canada and Mexico gathered for a summit in the city of Waco, Texas, last week. Conservative TV broadcasters in the United States deliver rants about America's "broken borders" on an almost nightly basis, and hundreds of vigilantes are poised to descend on the arid scrubland of southern Arizona this week to launch a manhunt for some of the thousands of Mexican workers crossing into the United States each day. Yet while U.S. President George W. Bush vowed to redouble efforts to secure congressional approval of a guest-worker program he unveiled more than a year ago, he hedged his bets about its passage. "I will continue to push our Congress to come up with rational, common-sense immigration policy," Bush said in remarks addressed to Mexican President Vicente Fox. But, he added, "you don't have my pledge that Congress will act, because I'm not a member of the legislative branch."

Inaction, however, may no longer be an option. Businesses throughout the United States have grown thoroughly dependent on--and accustomed to--hiring Mexican laborers. But along the nearly 3,000-kilometer border between the two countries, tensions are rising to dangerous levels. Tit-for-tat vendettas between rival drug gangs have transformed border towns like Matamoros into virtual war zones and left more than 250 people dead. On the eve of the summit a gun battle erupted on the streets of Nuevo Laredo, a seven-hour drive from the site of the meeting, which killed two and wounded seven. Migrant smugglers, known as coyotes, sometimes get mixed up in the drug trade as well, while on the American side of the border, vigilante groups are taking it upon themselves to stem the tide of migration. "The risk of violence is very real," warns U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent Charles Griffin.

The U.S. state of Arizona is at the center of the storm. Voters there approved a ballot initiative called Proposition 200 last November that imposed sweeping restrictions on the eligibility of immigrants to receive state-government services and benefits. The volume of illegal aliens entering the United States through Arizona has risen sharply in recent years after federal officials assigned to California and Texas cracked down; nearly 3,000 people a day now cross the state's 450-kilometer border with Mexico. All told, an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants live in Arizona, and their swelling ranks have swamped the state's schools, hospitals and prisons. The constitutionality of Proposition 200 is being challenged in two separate court cases. But the initiative garnered widespread support even among Arizona's registered Hispanic voters, and similar legislation is under consideration in Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia.

Arizona's newfound reputation as the cradle of the anti-immigration movement has made the state a magnet for vigilantes. Earlier this year a right-wing organization calling itself the Civil Homeland Defense invited volunteers to join a militia that will patrol a 64-kilometer-long stretch of the Arizona border in search of illegal aliens. The brainchild of an ex-schoolteacher from California named Chris Simcox, the so-called Minuteman Project will begin operations on April 1, when he expects several hundred people to sign up. "The president has allowed the problem to fester to the point where Americans are going to take border security into their own hands," says Simcox, who works out of the offices of the Tombstone Tumbleweed, a local newspaper. The Mexican government fears its citizens may suffer human-rights abuses at the hands of Simcox's militiamen.

Washington seems incapable of relieving the tensions. Some of Bush's fiercest opponents in Congress are members of his own party. They see his immigration proposal, which would match a specified number of migrants with American employers prepared to give them jobs on a temporary basis, as the first step toward granting illegal aliens U.S. residency. Led by Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner, these Republican skeptics have countered with a bill that cleared the House of Representatives last January and would, among other things, prohibit state governments from issuing driver's licenses to illegal residents. "The immigration system is broken, and there is a complete vacuum in federal policy," says former U.S. immigration chief Doris Meissner.

Indeed, no overhaul of U.S. immigration laws has taken place since the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was enacted in 1986. Nearly 2.7 million, mostly Mexican, illegal aliens were granted amnesty under IRCA, an outcome that's steeled the opposition of Republican legislators to the Bush administration's rather modest proposal, which would license up to 300,000 immigrants to work in the United States for no more than three years. That would leave unresolved the status of more than 10 million undocumented workers already living in America; Bush critics argue their continued presence would be tacitly condoned by even a limited, temporary guest-worker scheme. "The system we have breeds disrespect," says Dan Stein, director of the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform. "They make a mockery of the idea that there is such a thing as temporary status in this country."

Some immigration experts counter that any guest-worker plan that lacks a mechanism for immigrants to eventually legalize their status would be a nonstarter, both for the migrants and their U.S. employers, who need a steady and reliable work force. Many and perhaps most Mexican illegal aliens already hold jobs in service and manufacturing industries that are by their very nature permanent employment as opposed to temporary, seasonal work in agriculture. "What this would do is rotate temporary workers through permanent jobs," argues Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. "That is an invitation to massive noncompliance with the terms of the program."

What everyone can agree upon is that the current system isn't working. A massive increase in Border Patrol personnel and budgets in recent years has manifestly failed to lower the number of illegal aliens living in the United States. In a study conducted by Princeton sociology professor Douglas Massey, the 2,000 officers working for the Border Patrol in 1986 arrested 1.8 million undocumented workers. By 2003 the number of Border Patrol agents had risen sixfold, yet the number of arrests had fallen to 1 million, and the total population of illegal immigrants in the United States has continued to soar. Massey and others maintain that the immigrant who has managed to enter the United States and find work is less likely these days to undertake an occasional trip home, in part because of stricter border-enforcement practices that lessen the odds he will be able to re-enter the country. "We've got more monetary power and more equipment than at any time in our history," says Massey. "It's all been counterproductive. You don't deter them from coming in, you deter them from going home."

Change may be impossible as long as the huge gap between wages in the United States and points south persists. "We don't have a choice anymore," says Jorge Osorio Perez, a 38-year-old Mexican who was arrested in the Arizona desert along with 23 other immigrants earlier this month. "We know this is illegal, but it's the only option we have left." Both the United States and Mexico would be well advised to create more options, and soon.