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."