Illegal Immigration Fears Have Spread
Populist calls for tougher enforcement are being heard beyond the border states.
LA Times | April 25, 2005
By David Kelly
DENVER — The armed volunteers patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border may be the starkest sign of frustration with the nation's immigration laws, but across the country there is a growing populist movement also taking matters into its own hands.
In Washington, Colorado, Virginia and elsewhere, grass-roots organizations are forming to pass initiatives and pressure politicians into enacting laws denying benefits to illegal immigrants. There are already groups in seven states and more are expected by the end of summer. One congressman may even run for president on a platform of securing the border.
The issue, experts say, is affecting more people than ever before and the gap between the public and policymakers is widening.
"Immigration is now a national phenomenon in a way that was less true a decade ago," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "In places like Georgia and Alabama, which had little experience with immigration before, people are experiencing it firsthand. Immigrants are working in chicken plants, carpet mills and construction. It's right in front of people's faces now, which is why it's become a political issue where it wasn't relevant before."
Supporters of tougher enforcement say the rise of citizen groups is a natural response to the federal government's reluctance to repair a situation nearly everyone admits is broken.
"The issue is about elites, major financial interests and global economic forces arrayed against the average American voter," said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors strict immigration policies. "The depth of anger should not be underestimated."
In Cullman, Ala., James Burke, 57, is signing up volunteers to push immigration reform in the state Legislature. He says the influx of illegal immigrants working in chicken processing plants and construction has led to a rise in crime, decline in neighborhoods and depressed wages.
"Our goal is to stop illegal immigration and get rid of the illegal immigrants who are here. What I saw happen in California over 30 years is happening here in just a few years," said the retired ironworker. "If I were to break into your house, use all of your stuff, watch your big-screen television, eat your food, would you say, 'That man is a criminal' or 'He just wants a better way of life'? "
Not far away in Covington, Ga., Lee Bevang is also organizing.
"Georgia is one of the top destinations for illegal aliens," said the 48-year-old bill collector. "Folks here could always go out and get a construction job for a decent wage but the contractors have totally taken advantage of illegal aliens, paying them wages no American can live on. My husband has been laid off. The concern about this is just huge."
Georgia's migrant population has mushroomed, growing from between 25,000 and 35,000 in 1990 to 228,000 by 2000, according to government statistics.
Like her counterparts around the country, Bevang hopes to build a politically powerful movement that would, as she says, end the "free buffet" for illegal immigrants. "We are a generous country but now it's time to take care of our own people in need," she said. "We are losing our middle class."
Massachusetts and Nebraska have similar committees. In Colorado, activists are working to put an initiative on the ballot next year denying state services to illegal immigrants.
Such efforts in places so far from the southern border are testimony to the growing reach of immigration.
Department of Homeland Security figures show that from 1990 to 2000, the illegal immigrant population in Alabama went from 5,000 to 24,000; in Nebraska the number grew from 6,000 to 24,000, and in Arkansas from 5,000 to 27,000.
Though these statistics motivate many grass-roots operations, their real inspiration has come from Kathy McKee. She launched Proposition 200, which passed overwhelmingly last year in Arizona. The measure requires evidence of legal residence before people can vote or get state welfare services.
"The reason for this movement is that people have lost hope that the government is going to do its job," she said. "The people in Washington are listening to their contributors who are businesses, and businesses, almost without fail, want illegal immigration."
McKee started Protect Arizona Now and also runs Protect America Now. Like many, she was stunned by the numbers and wanted to do something about illegal immigration. There are between 8 million and 10 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. Southeast Arizona is the busiest corridor of entry, with about 500,000 arrests last year.
"The vast majority in every state agrees with us," she said. "All that remains is getting them all together."
This groundswell of citizen activism worries proponents of more open immigration laws. The Catholic Church will begin a public relations counteroffensive next month against those calling for tighter border controls. Nearly 50% of Catholics backed Proposition 200.
"Clearly, public opinion on immigration has shifted since 9/11 but our polls show if people listen to the issues in depth they will see the need for intelligent reform," said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The National Immigration Forum, an immigrant rights organization, said people were angry because enforcement hadn't worked.
"I think there is greater frustration now because we have had 10 to 12 years of buildup at the border and yet we have a bigger undocumented population than ever," said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the forum. "We are a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws and the key is to bring them together."
Though Democrats have traditionally held more liberal views on immigration, the issue is splitting the Republican Party.
"You have the cultural conservatives versus the libertarian, pro-business wing of the party," said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego. "The cultural conservatives will not let this issue go away. They will keep holding the president's feet to the fire."
Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies, said the gulf between the "elite" and the average American was bigger on illegal immigration than nearly any other issue.
"Elites are less likely to be inconvenienced by immigration," he said. "They are hiring illegals, not competing against them for work."
President Bush told newspaper editors recently that anger over immigration could lead to nativism, which was not how Americans should view the world.
"I support the president's position that we ought to be moving to a situation where guest workers can come and go without fear of losing their jobs," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and an advisor to Bush on his proposed guest-worker program. "If you create 2 million jobs a year, people will find them no matter how big a fence you build."
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) are drafting a bill that would use high-tech resources to secure the border while offering a guest-worker program leading to permanent resident status and possible citizenship. The Senate blocked a measure Wednesday that could have offered a path to citizenship for 500,000 farmworkers and their families.
But while Bush and the Senate try to balance the needs of immigrants and business with better border security, others want tougher action.
In the House of Representatives, there are efforts to keep illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses. Some activists are calling for the National Guard to patrol the border. Meanwhile, talk radio and cable news programs fan the passions of those who feel the country is losing its sovereignty.
Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo, the Colorado Republican who for years has supported a clampdown on illegal immigration, said the passage of Proposition 200 was behind the newfound political interest in reform.
Tancredo has been speaking in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first presidential contests are held.
"I am on this little crusade where my purpose is to build a fire around this issue so that any presidential candidate will have to deal with it," he said. "I wish you could have been there in New Hampshire to see the passion around this — in New Hampshire!"
If there is no serious reform soon, Tancredo may do more than just talk.
"I will think of what option I have to make this part of the national debate, and if it means running for president then I will do it," he said.
Tancredo met recently with the Minuteman Project in Arizona and invited its leaders to testify before the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus this week. There are about 780 Minuteman volunteers spending April patrolling the highly trafficked Arizona-Mexico border near Douglas and reporting migrants to the Border Patrol.
Last week, Minuteman organizers said because of the "phenomenal success" of the operation, a new phase was starting. It includes protesting businesses that hire illegal immigrants, pressuring politicians for a border crackdown and creating Minuteman branches nationwide. There is interest in California, New Mexico, Michigan and Texas.
The Border Patrol, which discouraged the group's help, said illegal crossings had dropped 50% in Minuteman areas.
The volunteers said their presence proved that ordinary citizens, properly organized and motivated, could effect real change. And their compatriots working within the system hope for similar results.
"A bunch of grandmas and grandpas on lawn chairs have been able to shut down the border," said Grey Deacon, a Minuteman spokesman. "People are now asking if we would bring the Minutemen to their town. All I can say is, there's a lot of planning going on."