President Promotes Border Plan in Arizona

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President Bush flies to Yuma, Ariz., to talk about his plans for slowing illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border. Tighter border enforcement elsewhere has increased illegal crossings in this area not previously known as a hotbed of smuggling.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Bush is scheduled today to bring his push for overhauling immigration to the Arizona border. He'll visit Yuma, the latest front in the fight against illegal immigration.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

Go as far west in Arizona, as you can, before crossing into California, and about as far south, as you can, before crossing into Mexico. You're in Yuma. In the summertime, this is its defining sound.

(Soundbite of air conditioners)

ROBBINS: Air conditioning. It's 103-degrees in mid-May and headed higher. Yuma also appears to be the growing hotspot for illegal entries into the United States.

Mayor LARRY NELSON (Yuma, Arizona): Just this last two weeks, they have shutdown seven or eight drop houses. So that's a major effect on us, in our police department.

ROBBINS: Yuma Mayor, Larry Nelson, says more and more people are crossing the border near here. Other public services in Yuma, such as hospitals, are seeing the strain, too. The Border Patrol has doubled the number of agents here in the last year, to more than 700. Apprehensions are up. It's the same pattern we've seen over the last decade. Like a balloon, as agents squeeze one area of the border, a bulge of crossers pushes through elsewhere.

Wayne Cornelius of the University of California at San Diego.

Professor WAYNE CORNELIUS (Director, Center for Comparative Immigration, UCSD): If most of the new Border Patrol agents and National Guardsmen, that were promised by the President, are deployed in the central Arizona area, that will push even more illegal entries to the west - into Yuma and San Diego, and also eastward in New Mexico.

ROBBINS: But Yuma has another kind of migrant. The kind it wants. In the wintertime, agriculture defines this sunny corner of Arizona. Between October and April, farmers here grow virtually all the lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower, eaten in the U.S. and Canada. Every day, 30,000 ag-workers cross the Mexican border, with all the documentation they need to pick and process crops.

Doug Mellon grows lettuce and broccoli, wheat and cotton. He says he pays 12 to $14 an hour to work in his fields. He knows at least some of his workers carry false documents.

Mr. DOUG MELLON (Farmer): We've asked the Border Patrol to come into our businesses and examine our records. And they say they don't have time to do that. So we have no means of finding out who has phony documents and who has real documents.

ROBBINS: The workers are needed. But as enforcement increases, including the prospects of National Guard troops, folks like Fernando Quiroz say anxiety may increase. Quiroz heads a Yuma immigrant aid center.

Mr. FERNANDO QUIROZ (Executive Director, American Beginnings): I think the fear is that it is going to be a militarized area. I think the fear is that they are no longer going to be welcome in this country.

ROBBINS: And Mayor Larry Nelson wants them to feel welcome. Because migrants not only make money in Yuma, they spend it.

Mayor NELSON: They're coming over. They're doing their shopping. And that has about a $400 million impact on our economy here.

ROBBINS: That's the contradiction with current immigration reform proposals. Welcoming people, while, at the same time, trying to scare them away. But it's why many here, including grower Doug Mellon, say tough enforcement alone will not work.

Mr. MELLON: You can bring on all the armies you want too, and the problem is not going to go away, unfortunately.

ROBBINS: But you know what really bothers him? The way the issue has, as he puts it, been turned into a political football. He's watching from the sidelines and he says he is fed up with the players.

Mr. MELLON: I'm not fixing to vote for any incumbents, I can tell you that right now. I just soon send a new person to the federal legislature. He can't do any worse than what these old guys have done, because they've done nothing.

ROBBINS: Doug Mellon won't have a chance to get that message across to President Bush when he visits here today. But he can deliver it in November.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Yuma, Arizona.

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