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Immigration's front line

Solutions to one of the hottest election questions of the year are being forged in Arizona.

October 24, 2006

JUST OUTSIDE the eastern Arizona town of Willcox (pop. 3,800), a community of makeshift homes has taken root amid the orchards and farmland. House trailers, mobile homes, recreational vehicles, vans and even the occasional bus have been planted in rows along pockmarked dirt roads, with small yards that sport almost as many broken-down cars on blocks as trees. Several have sprouted appendages -- extra rooms made of blocks and plywood -- to accommodate larger families. The structures look improvised, and yet there's an air of permanence about it all, a sense of people getting settled.

This ramshackle neighborhood, derisively nicknamed Winchester Estates, is home to the area's farmworkers and their children. But it is also a monument to the nation's dysfunctional immigration policies. Many of the community's farmers are here illegally, making up a small part of the thousands who come into Arizona without visas every night.

The issue of illegal immigration looms large in Arizona politics. At first blush, the consistent message from office-seekers appears to be "we're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore." Reinforcing the borders with local police or National Guardsmen, deploying high-tech surveillance gear to detect border jumpers and cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants -- steps that once were advocated almost exclusively by conservatives -- are being touted this fall by Arizona politicians from across the political spectrum and in races at almost every level of government.

Because of crackdowns by the Border Patrol in California and Texas, this state's forbidding stretch of Sonora Desert has become the busiest crossing for illegal immigrants. Arizonans feel overwhelmed.

The feds make more than half a million arrests of border jumpers in Arizona each year, and analysts believe that at least two succeed for every one who's caught. Reflecting the views of their constituents, candidates blame illegal immigrants for raising the state's crime rate (the worst in the nation), lowering its public schools' test scores and crowding its hospitals' emergency rooms, among other ills.

What to do about the problem, however, is a question that divides voters and candidates alike, even those in the same party. There's no better illustration of this than Arizona's 8th Congressional District, a 9,000-square-mile, rough-hewn expanse that stretches from Tucson east to Willcox and south to an 80-mile stretch along the Mexican border. The Republican nominee is former state Rep. Randy Graf of Green Valley, a retiree-heavy enclave south of Tucson. Graf has made illegal immigration the central issue of his political career. Quite unrealistically, he wants to seal the borders and force undocumented aliens to leave the country to obtain a visa. A new guest worker program, he said at a recent debate with his three opponents, would "wave a white flag" on immigration and "allow the 20 million illegals to be here legally."

As Graf's opponents pointed out at the debate, Arizona's fast-growing agricultural and construction industries have come to depend on illegal immigrants to fill jobs that legal residents aren't able or willing to fill. These industries would love to have a foolproof way to hire these individuals legally. But as long as the federal government drags its feet on comprehensive reform, many businesses would just as soon adopt a "trust, don't verify" policy when it comes to people's immigration status, because enforcement might drive their work to a halt or send it overseas.

The agribusinesses around Willcox grow fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts, most of which are harvested in a four-month stretch from July through October. In previous decades, migrant workers would come in once or twice a year, then head back south. The local labor market started to change in 1992, when EuroFresh Farms built the first of its massive greenhouses to raise tomatoes just north of Willcox. The company now has 221 acres of greenhouses there, and it's still expanding. Meanwhile, the toughening of border security cut down on the "circularity" of immigrant movement because once you successfully run that desert gantlet, you're not eager to do it again.

Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, the former state legislator who is running against Graf, sensibly argues that a guest worker program that enables more workers to come into the U.S. legally for a finite period would significantly reduce the flow of illegal migrants, enabling authorities to focus on stopping drug dealers, would-be terrorists and other threats. In her campaign commercials, however, she doesn't talk about guest workers. Instead, she sounds themes right out of the Graf playbook: securing the border and denying Social Security, welfare and other benefits to illegal immigrants.

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