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Updated Feb 19, 2013 - 6:40 pm

McCain defends immigration plan to angry residents

PHOENIX — Arizona took center stage in the national immigration debate
Tuesday as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano toured the state’s
border with Mexico and Sen. John McCain defended his proposed immigration
overhaul to an angry crowd in suburban Phoenix.

The presence of the top officials is the latest sign that Arizona will play a
prominent role in the immigration debate as President Barack Obama looks to make
it a signature issue of his second term.

Napolitano toured the border near Nogales with the highest-ranking official at
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the incoming chairman of the Senate’s
homeland security committee and an Arizona congressman. Napolitano, Arizona’s
former governor, said afterward that comprehensive immigration reform will
strengthen the nation’s border against criminals and other threats.

Also Tuesday, McCain hosted two town hall meetings in Arizona, during which he
defended his immigration plan to upset residents concerned about border
security. A bipartisan group of senators _ including Arizona Republicans McCain
and Jeff Flake _ want assurances on border security as Congress weighs what
could be the biggest changes to immigration law in nearly 30 years. Arizona is
the only state with both of its senators working on immigration reform in
Congress, a sign of the state’s widely debated border security issues.

Immigration activists and elected officials say it’s only natural for Arizona
to continue to take the forefront in the national conversation on immigration
after years of internal debate on the topic.

“No state in this country has had more experience with enforcement-only
immigration laws than Arizona,” said Todd Landfried, executive director of
Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform, which opposes the state’s tough
immigration laws.

During a heated town hall gathering in the Phoenix suburb of Sun Lakes, McCain
said the border near Yuma is largely secure, but he said smugglers are using the
border near Tucson to pump drugs into Phoenix. He said immigration reform should
be contingent on better border security that must rely largely on technology
able to detect border crossings.

McCain said a tamper-proof Social Security card would help combat identity
fraud, and noted any path to citizenship must require immigrants to learn
English, cover back taxes and pay fines for breaking immigration laws.

“There are 11 million people living here illegally,” he said. “We are not
going to get enough buses to deport them.”

Some audience members shouted out their disapproval.

One man yelled that only guns would discourage illegal immigration. Another man
complained that illegal immigrants should never be able to become citizens or
vote. A third man said illegal immigrants were illiterate invaders who wanted
free government benefits.

McCain urged compassion. “We are a Judeo-Christian nation,” he said. McCain’s
other town hall meeting took place in Green Valley, south of Tucson.

Arizona gained international recognition as an epicenter of the U.S.
immigration debate when it passed its tough anti-immigrant law in 2010. A
handful of other states _ including Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah _
have since adopted variations of Arizona’s law.

Arizona has the nation’s eighth-highest population of illegal immigrants,
according to the Pew Research Hispanic Center. In 2010, illegal immigrants
represented roughly 6 percent of the state’s population.

Activists said Arizona’s anti-immigrant laws inspired many illegal immigrants
to demand more rights. Last week, some college students rallied outside Arizona
Gov. Jan Brewer’s office for driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

“They no longer are afraid to come and say, `I am not able to vote, but I can
make my voice heard, and they have to listen to me,”’ said community organizer
Abril Gallardo.

A report released in January showed the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson sector
remains the busiest along the U.S.-Mexico border. The Tucson sector accounted
for 38 percent of all drug seizures and 37 percent of all apprehensions along
the border.

Brewer said last week the border cannot be declared safe until the people
living near it feel secure from drug and human trafficking.

But Democratic Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona told Latino and black
community leaders at a Phoenix luncheon Tuesday that Arizonans need to spread
the word on how much more secure the border has become.

“There are lots of folks who don’t live in Arizona who have no idea what the
border is like,” Sinema said.

Napolitano toured the border Tuesday afternoon with U.S. Customs and Border
Protection Deputy Commissioner David Aguilar, Democratic Rep. Ron Barber of
Arizona and Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware. Carper is the incoming
chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

She said in a statement after the tour that border crossings are down 50
percent since 2008 and 78 percent since their peak in 2000.

___

Cristina Silva can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/cristymsilva

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