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Updated Feb 19, 2013 - 5:21 pm

Arizona plays prominent role in immigration debate

PHOENIX — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano toured the
Arizona-Mexico border Tuesday as Sen. John McCain defended his proposed
immigration overhaul in suburban Arizona in the latest sign that this border
state will play a prominent role in the national immigration reform debate.

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.

On the same day, McCain was hosting town hall meetings in Green Valley and Sun
Lakes, during which he was expected to sell his immigration plan focused on
border security. A bipartisan group of senators _ including Arizona’s McCain
and fellow Republican Jeff Flake _ want assurances on border security as
Congress weighs proposals that would represent 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 its years of internal debate on how to handle scores of immigrants.

“Arizona has played a tremendous role to ensure that people see what is wrong
with our immigration laws now,” said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi
Familia Vota, a Phoenix-based organization that seeks social justice for

Arizona gained international recognition as an epicenter of the U.S.
immigration debate when it passed its tough anti-immigrant law in 2010, with
state lawmakers arguing the federal government wasn’t adequately preventing
illegal immigration. A handful of other states _ including Georgia, Indiana,
South Carolina and Utah _ have since adopted variations of Arizona’s law.

“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.

Landfried suggested Congress send a delegation to meet with Arizona employers
who have had trouble hiring because of immigration laws, and workers who can’t
find jobs because they lack legal documentation.

“We’ve got a lot of insights and experiences that really should be heard by
people who are trying to draft this stuff,” he said.

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.

For years, Arizona’s illegal immigrants, especially young students, have
clamored for new laws allowing them to pursue legal status. Activists say
Arizona’s anti-immigrant laws inspired many illegal immigrants to come out of
the shadows and demand more rights. Last week, some college students gathered
outside Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s office to demand driver’s licenses.

“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 review found a 6 percent
dip in apprehensions borderwide between 2008 and 2011. But the Tucson sector
accounted for 38 percent of all drug seizures and 37 percent of all
apprehensions despite covering just 13 percent of the border area.

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

Others insist the border is safe. 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 in recent years.

“There are lots of folks who don’t live in Arizona who have no idea what the
border is like,” Sinema said. “Letting people know what measures have been
taken in the last few years would be helpful.”

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.

Napolitano has highlighted historic numbers of Border Patrol agents across the
Southwest, along with technology enhancements. She also has made border security
trips this month to El Paso, Texas, and San Diego.


Cristina Silva can be reached at


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