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Small Business Nation. A Project of The U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Immigration in Spotlight as Senators Tour Arizona

March 28, 2013
The New York Times
FERNANDA SANTOS

NOGALES, Ariz. — Four United States senators came to this bustling city on the Mexican border on Wednesday searching for answers to the question that has ensnarled the debate over immigration reform: How secure is that border?

They met Border Patrol agents, hovered over the region by helicopter to appreciate its challenges and magnitude, and visited one of the ports of entry here, where people and cargo cross back and forth all day and night.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, whose office organized the tour, said that while there has been progress, the border “is still not as secure as we want it to be or expect it to be.”

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who was visiting the border for the first time, said the tour helped deepen an understanding of the region, but that there were “many other things we have to do as well,” like controlling the flow of people coming into the country and providing a path to citizenship for “these 11 million immigrants who are in the shadows.”

They are among the eight senators — four Republicans and four Democrats — who are working through the Congressional recess to shape a comprehensive immigration-reform bill that they plan to introduce next month.

Resolving the security question has been among the senators’ top priorities — it is a necessity if they are to persuade conservative politicians to endorse their plan — and two new studies have found that the reality on the ground is complicated, with the communities on both sides of the border bound together in ways that defy traditional notions of home, country and citizenship.

For some legislators involved in the immigration discussions in Washington, Mexico is an adversary of sorts, its border towns and cities regarded as staging grounds for migrants poised to sneak into the United States, as hide-outs for criminals running human- and drug-smuggling operations, and as drop-off points for people that the United States deports.

One of the reports, part of an analysis by Arizona State University’s North American Center for Transborder Studies and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, due for release in May, paints a different picture. It found that transnational family ties are the glue that binds neighboring communities even though they are divided by a fence.

Its author, Francisco Lara Valencia, made his point by citing local economic indicators: an increase of 10 percent in the activities of maquiladoras, or manufacturing plants, in Mexican border cities that translates into a rise in employment on the United States side through expanded production, transportation needs and retail trade.

“Many new businesses in U.S. border towns are being created by Mexican entrepreneurs,” said Lara Valencia, an assistant professor at the School of Transborder Studies at Arizona State. He added that “the retail sector in these places depends critically on Mexican cross-border shopping” like the discount stores that dot the downtown here.

The other study, by the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, released Thursday, concluded that many migrants who are deported feel they left behind their home as well as a chance for a better life.

This “emotional connection,” as described by one of the researchers, Jeremy Slack, a doctoral student at the School of Geography and Development at the university, is the single strongest predictor of who among the deported migrants will seek to return to the United States.

According to the report, financed by the Ford Foundation, about 60 percent of the respondents said they planned to try crossing the border again in the near future.

The reasons were clear: of the 1,113 recently deported migrants who were interviewed at ports of entry and in shelters in six border communities in Mexico, roughly 300 of them had children under the age of 18 who were American citizens.

One in three of the migrants — mostly men with a median of eight years of formal education — said they considered the United States their home.

Wages for such low-skilled workers have emerged as a point of contention between business leaders and labor groups whose needs the senators have considered as they have worked on their legislation. As he made his way to the border on Wednesday, Senator Schumer talked by phone to Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, trying to come up with a deal that would be acceptable to business.

In the afternoon, Mr. Schumer met with immigration advocates in Phoenix to hear their stories.

At the news conference here, Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, who is among the eight senators working on changes to immigration law, cautioned, “Not everybody is going to get everything they want in this bill.”

Arizona, Mr. Bennet said, has figured in almost every one of the meetings the senators have had, and Mr. Schumer defined the state as “ground zero” in the battles over illegal immigration because of the amount of human- and drug-smuggling there.

Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, told reporters that beyond resolving security challenges, any changes in the law must foster commerce between the United States and Mexico.

The senators offered only a few clues to the legislation they have been drafting. Mr. McCain said it draws a distinction between drug smugglers and “individuals who are simply trying to cross over here so they can improve their lives,” though he stressed that there must be a legal way for them to do that.

He suggested the need for increased security along the 2,000-mile boundary, not by adding to the 21,000 agents on patrol, but by using more technology in a region that is already guarded by cameras, sensors and drones.

Mr. Schumer said the bill would offer ways to measure security and parameters that must be met before illegal immigrants could apply for citizenship.

“Passing this bill is going to be hard,” he said. But being at the border, he said, could make the difference in convincing his colleagues that the timing — and their approach — is right.

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