Immigration Stalemate Frustrates Arizona

Washington's deadlock over an overhaul of immigration policy prompts exasperation in Arizona, a border state with a lot riding on the debate. About half of all the illegal immigrants in the U.S. enter through Arizona.

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People in Arizona have ample reason to be frustrated over the immigration stalemate. About half of all the illegal immigrants in the U.S. enter through Arizona. And the state is home to activists of all stripes, from those who want to deport illegal immigrants to those who want to give them a path to citizenship. For that reason, Arizona has a special stake in what Washington, D.C. does or it doesn't do about immigration reform.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS: It's an overcast morning and the air is filled with the smell of freshly mown grass as tractors pull the cutting blades between rows of pecan trees. The Santa Cruz Valley farm is about 40 miles north of the Mexican border. Dick Walden(ph) owns the farm and a pecan processing plant. He says he has a chronic worker shortage.

Mr. DICK WALDEN (Santa Cruz Valley, Arizona): Normally we have from five to 10 open positions at all times.

ROBBINS: During the harvest season he needs another 40 to 50 workers. So Walden strongly supports a guest worker program. He says he told his senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, but he blames other employers for not communicating their similar needs.

Mr. WALDEN: The business community has not spoken up and stood up and stood up and made their wishes known that they need to have a guest worker program.

ROBBINS: Immigrant rights groups did speak up. Jennifer Allen is with the Border Action Network, which is pushing for not only a guest worker program but legalization for millions of immigrants already here.

Ms. JENNIFER ALLEN (Border Action Network): Ten thousand post cards were sent to the - to both the senators in the last month and a half. We had hundreds and hundreds of phone calls just come out of the Tucson area just in the last week and a half.

ROBBINS: Now she says it's a struggle to keep her people involved.

Ms. ALLEN: Well, I mean people feel like it's just over, and that the vote in the Senate was just a definitive vote. However, our message back out to folks on the street is that it's not over.

ROBBINS: Allen says Arizona's senators have been supportive, even though McCain and Kyl have been roundly criticized by the Republican Party in Arizona for helping to write the bill. But so far, as farmer Dick Walden points out, groups opposing the bill have been lobbying more successfully.

Mr. WALDEN: Unfortunately there is a vocal minority in this country that is very agitated about the immigration situation and the fact that people who are coming in to this country.

Mr. CHRIS SIMCOX (Minuteman Civil Defense Corps): No legislation is better than bad legislation.

ROBBINS: That's another Arizonian, Chris Simcox, founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. He argues that opposing the immigration bill does not put him in the minority. But he would agree he is vocal. The Minutemen and other restrictionist groups lobbied hard for defeat, calling the bill's legalization provision amnesty. Simcox wants to shut the borders before more immigrants get in and says nothing should be discussed before that happens. In fact, he doesn't think Congress is even needed for that.

Mr. SIMCOX: Sign an executive order to deploy 20,000 National Guard personnel to that border. Build those fences as quickly as possible. And the president can take care of that first piece, border security.

ROBBINS: The president has ordered the Border Patrol to add 6,000 new agents before the end of next year. And this week along a stretch of border in Arizona, the government is bringing online a test of a high-tech virtual fence. But it's not fast enough for Simcox.

(Soundbite of men chanting)

ROBBINS: Just south of Tucson, few out-of-town visitors know anything of the controversy. They are at one of Arizona's prime tourist destinations, the 300-year-old Franciscan Mission San Xavier del Bac. John Christiana was typical.

Mr. JOHN CHRISTIANA (Cleveland Resident): I wish I had something for you but we're from Cleveland. So I mean the immigration issue is not a big deal for us.

ROBBINS: But it is a big a deal for folks from Arizona like Jonathan Romero.

Mr. JONATHAN ROMERO (Arizona Resident): There's no one solution and at least they're talking about it and they're working on it.

ROBBINS: And that's important in Arizona, where people are exasperated that Washington can't seem to stop arguing and just do something.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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