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In the Southwest, a Tension Between Welcoming Immigrants And Protecting Borders

BY Cyril Jones Kellett

November 30-December 6, 1997 Issue | Posted 11/30/97 at 1:00 PM

 

SAN DIEGO, Calif.—Juanita Encinas began receiving calls last summer from members of Chandler, Arizona's Hispanic community saying that something strange was going on. For two days Encinas, who runs a community center in Chandler, paid little attention to the calls, but soon they became too numerous to ignore.

What Encinas found as she toured the Hispanic neighborhoods of Chandler, a 45-minute drive from Phoenix, was a joint operation being conducted by agents of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and Chandler police. “They were stopping everyone who had brown skin,” Encinas recounted, “They were going door to door.”

In a town where some Hispanic families go back four or five generations, Encinas said, “a lot of people were very offended by what happened. They were targeting the Hispanic community.”

The operation netted more than 400 illegal aliens in four days of sweeps. At least six U.S. citizens were also taken into custody, and an unknown number of legal immigrants and citizens were stopped and checked. A $34 million lawsuit has since been filed on behalf of the U.S. citizens who were detained.

Shortly after the incident, a town meeting was organized by the Office for Hispanic ministries of the Diocese of Phoenix in order to assess the situation.

“The stories we were hearing [at the meeting] were outrageous,” said Michael Hernandez-Nowakowski, director of the Phoenix Hispanic ministries office. “People were going out for milk and being stopped.”

When news of what had happened in Chandler broke across the state, there was comment from every sector, ranging from cries of racism in government agencies, to praise for the use of tactics that were overdue. In the uproar, fault lines, previously hidden, began to show themselves.

Three years after Californians passed Proposition 187, which banned state social services to illegal immigrants, tensions around immigration issues are still running high throughout the Southwest.

Particular tension has centered on a provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act that was scheduled to expire Sept. 30. The provision, known as 245(i), allowed people who are illegally in the United States to pay a $1,000 fine and remain in the country while their applications for “adjustment” to legal status were reviewed.

Paying the fine did not guarantee permission to remain in the United States would be granted, but it kept those here illegally from having to return to their country of origin and then apply for reentry.

Additionally, Oct. 20, the INS issued guidelines making it more difficult for those in the United States to sponsor immigrants wishing to enter the country legally. Designed to minimize the risk that immigrants will end up on public assistance, the rules mandate a 25% higher income requirement for sponsors, and toughen the financial obligations of sponsors should the immigrant require assistance.

These measures, along with federal laws making it easier to deport immigrants who have committed crimes, including decades old misdemeanors, have fostered an atmosphere that some call “anti-immigrant” and others refer to as “regaining control of our borders.” It is in the differing interpretations of such legislation that the tensions show themselves.

Advocates for an extension of 245(i) contend that the provision has relieved pressure on overburdened U.S. consulates in foreign countries and generated funds for the INS (more that $200 million for the last fiscal year). They also say it prevents the unnecessary separation of families while applications are being processed.

“We have thousands of families that are of mixed immigration status,” said Vanna Slaughter, who handles immigration issues for the Diocese of Dallas. “Usually the father has come over legally and the family illegally,” she pointed out. She felt that failure to extend 245(i), or replace it with similar legislation, will needlessly separate these families, some of whom have both citizen and non-citizen children.

“Its just really horrific,” she lamented.

Slaughter puts much of the responsibility for congressional opposition to 245(i) on one of her state's congressmen, Lamar Smith (R-Texas). He is the chairman of the house immigration subcommittee, and is one of the authors of the law that would put 245(i) to rest.

Smith contends that the provision rewards lawbreaking and slows the process for those trying legal avenues of immigration.

“It's an insult to legal immigrants,” said his spokesman, Allen Kay. “Through this provision, illegal aliens get to jump ahead. It is an incentive for people to break the law.”

Congress voted Sept. 29 to extend the provision until Oct. 23, and voted again Oct. 22 to extend the provision until Nov. 6. During the weeks of uncertainty about which option Washington would ultimately settle on, thousands of illegal immigrants lived with the anxiety of trying to decide what to do.

In a compromise, reached just before Congress adjourned for the year, the Senate, which wanted to extend 245(i) indefinitely, and the House, which was initially unwilling to extend it at all, gave illegal immigrants until Jan. 14 to apply for legal residency under this provision. After that date they will have to leave the United States to apply. It is estimated that the law change will affect more than 4.5 million people.

Many feared applying for legal status and risking deportation. The penalty for failing to apply for adjustment of status, however, could be stiff. When 245(i) fades away permanently, immigrants who failed to take advantage of the provision could face a 10-year ban before being allowed to apply for reentry into the United States.

In another last-minute action, Congress approved a measure allowing Central Americans and Eastern Europeans facing deportation to apply for a suspension while their requests for permanent residency are being processed. Many of these individuals came to the United States during the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Honduran Archbishop Oscar Rodriguez had warned that such a mass deportation would endanger the Central American peace process.

Another source of immigration tensions has been the stepped up efforts of the U.S. Border Patrol to stem the tide of illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. This effort has included an increasing militarization of the border. San Diego Border Patrol agents have come under occasional weapons fire from Mexico, and in Texas an American youth was killed when U.S. Marines, deployed to defend the border, shot him.

The Marines contend that they shot the youth, who was carrying a rifle, in self-defense. After an investigation, no charges were brought. The shooting, however, shed new light on the risks involved when the border becomes a military zone.

The primary focus of the Border Patrol's increased efforts has been around the busiest section of the 1,953-mile border, the area that separates San Diego from Tijuana. As recently as 1992, a five-mile section of this border accounted for 25% of all illegal entries into the United States.

Operation Gatekeeper, begun in October 1994, is a massive intensification of Border Patrol efforts that includes the use of steel fences, seismic sensors, night vision scopes, and additional agents along the San Diego border sector.

Few have argued with the success of the program. In 1995, Operation Gatekeeper's first year, there were 524,000 border apprehensions in the San Diego sector. Through October of this year, there had been less than 300,000. The Border Patrol attributes the drop to a decrease in smugglers willing to test the fortified area.

By moving illegal traffic eastward, however, Operation Gatekeeper has had some unwelcome results. As immigrants have attempted to enter the country using desert crossings, more have succumbed to the elements.

“Last year was the worst number of undocumented immigrant deaths we've had,” said Dr. Robert Moser, director of refugee and immigrant services for San Diego's Catholic Charities.

Such statistics are the cause of tension between federal agencies and some Hispanic groups, like San Diego's La Raza Lawyers Association, which has repeatedly questioned INS methods.

Landowners, including Indian tribes, whose land lies to the east of San Diego, have complained about increased immigrant and Border Patrol traffic on their land. And some critics have complained that the Border Patrol has been inhumane in its treatment of illegal aliens, most notably failing to carry water in trucks used to apprehend desert crossing illegals.

“Our mission is in a humane way to get control of our border,” counters Border Patrol spokesman Robert Gilbert. He concedes that there may have been inadequate water in some vehicles but said that was an early oversight. He points out that 54 agents in San Diego have been specially trained as Emergency Medical Technicians since Operation Gatekeeper began, and vehicles are now fully equipped with medical supplies.

With similar operations in Arizona (Operation Safe Guard), and in Texas (Operation Rio Grande), the Border Patrol is following a policy of gaining control of the most unruly border areas first and then fanning out.

Operation Gatekeeper III is now beginning in California's Imperial Valley, which stands between Arizona and San Diego. “Our ultimate goal is to gain control of the entire border,” said Gilbert.

To emphasize the Border Patrol's resolve to control the southwestern border, the agency's headquarters will be moved in January from Washington, D.C., to Laguna Niguel, Calif.

As long as enforcement efforts continue to include safeguards for the welfare of vulnerable illegals, the tight border goals would seem consistent with the policies of U.S. Catholic leaders.

“The bishops are on record that it's important that people abide by the immigration laws,” said Mark Franken, U.S. Catholic Conference executive director of migration and refugee services.

However, in the legislative arena, traditional Catholic concerns for family unity and for providing welcome to strangers continue to strain against strong social pressure for limited immigration. For those immigrants facing the expiration of 245(i), Franken said, “we have a responsibility to treat them as humans.”

Moser said that a distinction should be made between law enforcement efforts at the border, and what he called ex post facto enforcement, which comes into play long after the original “crime” of entering illegally has been committed.

“The Church is very conscious of the unification of families,” said Franken. “If you scratch the surface,” the people who benefit from laws such as 245(i), “are for the most part people who entered legally to be with their families and overstayed their visas.”

It may be that the vast economic difference between the United States and its southern neighbors make consistent and compassionate immigration policy a near impossibility. In some parts of the southwest 20% of the population is Hispanic, many with strong family ties to Mexico. Any policy that lacks sensitivity to these connections is bound to bring tensions to thousands of communities like Chandler. Policies that fail to fully assert the sovereignty of the U.S. border also raise tensions, however, and voters have repeatedly expressed their desire for strict border and immigration controls.

Efforts like Operation Gatekeeper are “what the public has wanted,” admitted San Diego's Moser.

Two months after the incident in Chandler, some Hispanic leaders gathered for a vigil in Phoenix, to pray for “more open hearts in Washington,” according to Hernandez-Nowakowski. They expected 50–100 to come for the 48-hour vigil. When more than 10,000 people came, they realized they had touched a nerve.

It was one of many nerves that remain raw as the nation struggles to find a balance between its tradition of welcoming immigrants and its desire to manage its borders.

Cyril Jones Kellett is based in San Diego.