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Friday, July 02, 2004

Immigration likely to be key political issue in Arizona


Immigration likely to be key political issue in Arizona
By ROB HOTAKAINEN
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
July 04, 2004

PHOENIX - Juan Huerta hoped it would be another lucky day in America as he munched tamales at a picnic table in the parking lot of a day-labor center, keeping a close eye on the white men who drove by in their big pickups.

It was 7 a.m., and the men were searching for Mexican laborers who would spend the day in the 108-degree sun doing roofing, painting, landscaping and cement work. Huerta, who came to Phoenix two years ago, waited for the one employer who might pay him $8 an hour, maybe even $10, in exchange for his specialized carpentry skills. He called it good money, twice as much as he could earn in his native Mexico.

"I like America, good America," said Huerta, 25, speaking in broken English.

Lured by the promise of a better life, Mexican immigrants are rushing to Arizona in high numbers, complicating the politics of a state that's expected to play a key role in Nov. 2 presidential election.

Once a reliably Republican state, Arizona is now officially up for grabs as Democrats and Republicans are busy wooing Hispanics. In the latest poll by the Arizona Republic, President Bush had a narrow 44 percent to 41 percent lead over his presumed Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry. A separate poll found Hispanics backing Kerry by a margin of nearly 2-to-1.

Hispanics, who now make up nearly 25 percent of Arizona's population, could easily decide whether Bush carries the state in 2004, as he did in 2000. But Bush's critics say the president risks alienating conservative voters with his plan to make it easier for immigrants to stay in the United States.

The backlash is growing, led by a group called Protect Arizona Now. "Go to the welfare office - you can shoot off a cannon in there and there isn't anybody speaking English," said Kathy McKee, the group's chairwoman.

She also opposes the day-labor center, calling it an illegal operation, and is frustrated that federal authorities aren't cracking down on it.

Salvador Reza, who runs the Macehualli Work Center in northeast Phoenix, laughs heartily at the idea: "They could do it, but then they would have a war on their hands." He said that's the last thing Bush wants during a re-election campaign.

Reza said that most of the Mexicans who risk their lives by walking through the desert to get work in the United States are not interested in becoming U.S. citizens, only in working here. He said the day-labor center is simply a testament to free trade.

"The United States claims to be a free-market country, yet they don't see this as a free-market movement," Reza said. "If you understand outsourcing, then you have to understand insourcing."

Arizona, which has the second highest proportion of illegal immigrants in the nation, is spending $1.3 billion per year to pay for the extra costs of medical care, education and incarceration, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The group estimates that at least 425,000 illegal residents are living in the state.

McKee said that state taxpayers no longer can afford those costs.

In the presidential campaign of 2000, Bush expressed sympathy for Mexicans who entered the United States illegally to find work. In 2001, he made his first foreign trip to Mexico and told President Vicente Fox that the United States would do "everything we can to come up with a solution to this complex problem."

But answers have been elusive, with Bush finding himself caught between two Republican constituencies: businesses that want a supply of cheap, low-skill labor and conservatives who say it's unfair to reward those who entered the country illegally. The president angered many of his supporters with his plan to relax immigration laws by creating a guest worker program that would grant renewable three-year labor visas for those who have already come to the United States or those who have received job offers here.

Bush's proposal has languished in Congress and is opposed by Kerry, who says it's a temporary fix and would lock immigrant workers into a second-class status. Kerry, who was campaigning in Phoenix, favors a plan that would make it easier for working immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

In Washington, many members of Congress have been complaining that the Bush administration is not doing enough to secure the borders, especially since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon nearly three years ago.

At an immigration hearing on Capitol Hill earlier this year, David Aguilar, chief of the Tucson border patrol with the Department of Homeland Security, called Arizona "the most active area that we have in the country right now."

He told Congress that the agency is not involved in "roundups or sweeps" of illegal aliens who are already in the United States.

Peggy Neely, a member of the Phoenix City Council, said that many people in Phoenix were disappointed when they realized the federal government "is not real excited to take care of this issue." But she said that opening the day-labor center provided a practical solution.

Neely, a Republican, supports Bush and doesn't blame the lack of enforcement on his administration, saying Sept. 11 forced the government to focus more on safety and less on tracking illegal aliens, particularly if they pose no criminal threat.

"There's not enough people for them to do both," she said. "It just has become overwhelming. ... It is a federal issue, and we do have to find a solution."

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