Border Crackdowns and the Battle for Arizona

A rancher's murder became the political catalyst for a tough new law aimed at illegal immigrants. But the state's controversial crackdown not only won't solve the border crisis — it may make it worse

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

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That damage may already have been done. "Do I need to dye my hair blond?" asked Erica Villa, a receptionist at the Grace United Methodist Church in the border town of Douglas, with a touch of bitterness. "I'm an American citizen. My ancestors were Cochise Indians. I have as much right to be here as anyone."

The future of SB1070 is very much in doubt. The city councils of Tucson, Flagstaff and San Luis have already decided to sue the state to stop it. Critics say the law violates the 14th Amendment's injunction against states' setting immigration policy, and the U.S. Supreme Court could be asked to decide if that's the case. If the law — due to take effect at the end of July — survives, police departments will almost certainly be sued by conservatives for impeding the arrest of illegals (the law allows for that) and by civil rights groups for racial profiling. The courts will ultimately have to decide the correct balance.

Regardless of SB1070's legal destiny, the fact remains that 71% of Arizona voters support the law, and according to a Rasmussen poll, 54% of American voters would support something similar in their state. In 2009, 1,500 bills related to immigration were introduced in state legislatures around the country. And even though the number of border crossers has fallen, voter anger seems to be rising.

Sorting Dishwasher from Doper
Washington is, of course, to blame. Not because the feds haven't put enough resources on the border: a completely militarized, impenetrable 2,000-mile border with our largest trading partner is a fantasy, and the steps taken in that direction have already cost billions and produced only incremental results. No, the problem is that too many politicians seem unwilling or unable to distinguish between hardened criminals and undocumented workers. The McCain of a few years ago had the right approach: emphasize the interior. Get those workers who are here and have been contributing out of the shadows so they don't have to pay smugglers, some of whom are connected to the drug cartels, to cross the border every time they want to visit their mom in Mexico. Once those 12 million or so are legal, then seriously enforce worker verification so that additional laborers are not tempted to cross the desert for jobs. Then you can turn to the border, where you'll find only criminals and narcos coming across; they won't be lost in the flood of commuting day laborers. The border patrol is armed and itching to take them on.

Back in the San Bernardino Valley, third-generation rancher Bill Miller showed off a new addition to his ranch — a mobile surveillance system he encouraged the border patrol to put on his property. Hitched to the back of an extended-cab pickup truck was a telescoping radar-and-camera system that retails for somewhere near $500,000. Inside the truck, which had blacked-out windows, was a border-patrol agent scanning the valley on dual monitors. The agent chatted gamely as he showed off the gear. It can combine or toggle between thermal imaging and video and zoom in on half the valley, almost to the Krentz ranch, with precision. He was excited about the evening: with a waxing moon and cloudless sky, he said, "it'll be jumping."

He then explained the fine art of discerning, on his two monitors, the dishwashers from the dopers — that is, how to figure out which are the laborers headed to some job in Chicago and which are the armed coyotes leading the dishwashers or, worse, narcotraffickers. It's all in the gait, he said. The dopers and coyotes walk straight and sure, while the dishwashers are wobbly and uncertain.

Why, I asked, did he need to know which kind they were?

"Because," he said, "you go after the real bad guys first."

That sounds sensible.

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