PHOENIX – President Obama’s State of the Union address and the Republican rebuttal by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) did little to quell the concerns of Arizona immigration activists, who worry that instead of comprehensive immigration reform, the federal government will pass piecemeal legislation that gives priority to border security.
While Obama reaffirmed his commitment and call for Congress to send him an immigration bill, he also spoke about people “going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally."
In his own speech, Sen. Rubio repeated the Republican mantra: “We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”
No actual immigration bills have been introduced yet, although both President Obama’s immigration reform plan and the “Gang of 8” bipartisan plan – a Senate-proposed framework for which Rubio is advocating – do call for a path to citizenship.
Border security a “cop out”
Dulce Matuz, president of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, described the issue of border security as “a cop out” used by politicians to polarize the debate and distract the public from making real advances in fixing the system.
“I don’t think we can have a secure border,” she said. “For as long as we have jobs, people will keep coming.”
Todd Landfried, a spokesman for Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform, agreed. Pointing to the thousands who risk life and limb each year to enter the country illegally, he said the only way to achieve border security would be “to keep people from coming through the desert to come here to look for work.”
“If you can get them to cross with papers through border crossings,” he explained, “then the only people that are in the desert are the people we want to find in the first place.”
Arizona State University political science professor Rodolfo Espino warned about the reality of a post-immigration reform era if the focus remains on border security without addressing other issues, such as the undocumented immigrants who are already living here, future migration of immigrants and backlogs in the current legal immigration system. “It keeps moving the goal post further down the field,” he said.
As an example, Espino pointed to the 1986 amnesty passed under former President Ronal Reagan. Espino noted that one of the problems with the bill is that it didn’t create a workable path for people to migrate legally.
“If we don’t keep updating things,” he said, “and make it a more efficient process for people that came in later, we are going to revisit this situation 30 years from now.”
It’s a concern that many, including Matuz, shares. While Obama’s references to immigration reform in the State of the Union came as no surprise to activists here, she says she was disturbed by the president’s line about people having to go “to the back of the line” in order to attain citizenship.
“Right now we have an immigration system that doesn’t work. So when they say: ‘back of the line,’ to begin with we’re talking about a line that doesn’t exist and thousands of people that are still stuck in the immigration process,” she said.
Arizona Republicans still won’t budge
While Republicans like Rubio and Arizona Senator John McCain push their party closer toward immigration reform, others in the state continue to pull in the opposite direction.
Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, known for her hardline stance on illegal immigration, recently announced that she will not back down from an executive order denying access to driver’s licenses for young people who have received a two-year deportation reprieve under President Obama’s deferred action (DACA) plan.
While DACA recipients can circumvent deportation, their parents are still subject to arrest under Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s crackdown on workers using fraudulent documents to gain employment.
“A person working to be a breadwinner for the family,” explained Matuz, “could spend several months in jail, even if he is eligible for immigration reform.” And the consequences of that, she added, can be dire.
Current laws in Arizona – such as Prop 100 – prohibit undocumented immigrants in jail from posting bail if they are charged with identity theft crimes related to their work. Those who plead guilty without challenging the charges are at further risk of hurting their chances at qualifying for possible amnesty under immigration reform because of the conviction that will appear on their record.
“This [the prosecutions being pursued under Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery] is designed so many of us won’t qualify for immigration reform,” said Matuz.
And with the recent recall of Arizona Senator Russell Pearce -- the architect of SB 1070, which made it a crime for undocumented immigrants to be in the state – the push for anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona subsided somewhat. Yet, Pearce supporters like Republican Rep. Steve Smith have revived legislation to require schools to collect information about the immigration status of their students, and for hospitals to do the same with their patients.
“The future of the Republican Party depends on what they do with immigration reform,” said Matuz. “We have to keep pressuring politicians, because they will continue to maneuver in ways designed to keep us from reaching that happy ending of [ensuring that all immigrants] qualify for immigration reform.”
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