Not all U.S. border communities see illegal immigration as emergency

`This country can absorb these people. They are producers,' says a mayor

August 27, 2005|By Ralph Vartabedian | Ralph Vartabedian,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DOUGLAS, Ariz. - Pressed against the Mexican border, this isolated city in the high desert ranks as one of the nation's busiest gateways for illegal immigration.

Encounters with illegal border crossers are so frequent that even Mayor Ray Borane hardly noticed the group of Mexicans hiding in the bushes recently outside the home he is building.

"I have seen illegal immigration all my life," he said, shrugging. "Illegal immigration has a life of its own. You can't stop it."

The impact of this human tide led Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to declare a state of emergency in four counties including Cochise, where Douglas is, last week. She cited the spread of "dangerous criminal activities" and failure of the federal government to "secure the United States and Mexico border."

But in Douglas, senior government leaders, federal agents and many residents are hard-put to identify the emergency conditions. Borane said the city of 15,000 was in generally good shape and had learned to live with the annoyances that accompanied the flow over the border.

Crime has been dropping, and the city hasn't recorded a homicide in a couple of years, Police Chief Charles E. Austin said. Women in town say the streets are safe to walk at night.

Though the city's downtown has faded and some stores are vacant, huge new retail outlets are adding employment and tax base. The city, which is 90 percent Latino, is far more dependent on trade with its sister city, Agua Prieta, than the rest of Arizona, Borane said.

Local civic institutions appear sound. Douglas' public school system - most of whose graduates go on to college - is easily handling enrollment, which until this year had been declining.

"It is not an emergency or a crisis," school district Superintendent Gail Zamar said. "I just don't see it."

Douglas defies the conventional wisdom that towns all along the border have been overwhelmed by illegal immigration and are falling apart. Many here say border problems are exaggerated by politicians, interest groups and the media.

To be sure, illegal immigrants cause damage in and around Douglas. They have trampled sensitive ecosystems in the nearby mountains, dumped many tons of litter in the countryside, vandalized ranchers' property and caused havoc with local health care systems.

But those burdens are part of a much larger relationship with Mexico. On balance, Borane said, immigration has been a benefit.

"The damage these illegals commit is minimal compared to what they contribute," said Borane, who is chairman of a group of U.S. mayors on the Mexican border. "This country can absorb these people. They are producers. Their children can become productive citizens."

Governor Napolitano, however, said the federal government was not doing nearly enough to protect the state. Days before she declared an emergency in four border counties, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson had made a similar declaration in his state.

The governors, both Democrats, declared emergencies to release state and federal funding for immigration enforcement.

"The rule of law has become victim, and the people who are experiencing it the most are those communities along the border," Napolitano said in an interview. "It is a very, very big problem for us."

U.S. Border Patrol agents don't agree with her that they are not increasing enforcement or with the mayor that immigration cannot be controlled.

Border Control Chief David V. Aguilar said his agency had made significant progress in stanching the flow of illegal immigrants in the Tucson sector, which includes Douglas. By a wide margin, the Tucson sector ranks as the largest gateway for illegal immigration on the U.S.-Mexican border.

In the Tucson sector, agents have apprehended more than 400,000 illegal immigrants since October - several times more than any other border sector. Apprehension is down 10 percent from the year ending last October, which the Border Patrol says reflects the deterrent effect of its enforcement.

Given those figures and what he calls an improving quality of life in Douglas, Aguilar says, "I wouldn't call it an emergency."

The Border Patrol has a huge presence in Douglas, with a gleaming new station and about 500 agents and 100 administrative employees to patrol 53 miles of the border.

It is equipped with more than 200 SUVs, trucks, vans and Jeeps, as well as horses, dogs, scooters and an armory of high-powered automatic weapons. Twenty years ago, the station had just 30 agents.

It has installed stadium-style lights and scores of cameras on towers along the border, able to zoom in on people in the brush a mile away. A network of seismic sensors linked to the command center warns of footsteps.

For 12 miles near Douglas, the patrol has erected a steel fence 18 feet tall, in part using surplus helicopter landing pads from the Persian Gulf war. Army engineers have built miles of roads along the border for Jeeps to patrol.

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