The ‘illegals’ who can make or break a presidency
The border between Mexico and Arizona is one of those iconic American locations. A perfect place to film a Spaghetti Western.
The sun bakes the sierra below. Phallic Saguaro cacti break up the never ending horizons, shimmering in the heat haze. Just looking at it makes you thirsty.
Under a vast sky in the yawning emptiness a daily drama unfolds. As one of the border guards put it to me: “This is a game of cat and mouse. We are the cats, but our whiskers are tied”. He was referring to the efforts by him and his colleagues to catch the illegal migrants spilling over the border.
Before the recession, an estimated 4,000 mainly Mexicans used to enter the US illegally every day. The numbers are down but even a poor economy still needs their labour. The vast majority have jobs and relatives waiting for them. In fact if you have been to the US you may have noticed that just about everyone who flips your burgers, makes your hotel beds or cleans the streets comes from south of the border.
There are an estimated 12 million illegal migrants living in America. Most of them have at least one family member who was born here and is thus a full US citizens. The economy couldn’t function without them, even during hard economic times and yet America’s immigration laws can’t keep pace with the numbers. It has ever been thus. The demand for their labour has always been much wider than the window open to them for legal entry.
Once upon a time millions were allowed to enter illegally. Business carved their cheap often seasonal labour. Politicians by and large turned a blind eye and the border was barely enforced. That was then. Since 9/11 much has changed.
As you will have noticed on your last trip here America has understandably become more of a fortress. On the Arizona border this has meant putting up a fence. 15ft of slick metal poles. It looks intimidating and on our recent visit my initial assumption was that this would keep the migrants out.
But after a short drive along America’s new fortifications, the fence suddenly runs out. It’s as if they couldn’t be bothered to carry on with it. There are almost 2,000 miles of land border after all. We assumed the migrants would just walk around the fence, the way that we did, flitting between Mexico and the US in the blink of an eye. That was until we met Juan and his friends. They were waiting on the Mexican side, hoping to cross that day. Juan’s entire family is already in the US. His sister is a doctor in New York.
He has a job as a banquet waiter in the Denver Convention Centre, the one that hosted President Obama’s Democratic Convention in 2008. “Will you walk around the fence?” I asked Juan. “Too much hassle”, he told me and then showed me how he shimmies up the 15ft border fence in seconds.
The fence barely even slows him down. The biggest threat to Juan and his family is now being picked up at a roadblock inside the US, especially in Arizona were the anti “illegal alien’ laws are draconian.
The authorities have discovered that it is much easier to pick people up once they have become less nomadic and more settled down with kids at school, the parents at work, rooted in the community. This is what has been happening in the last three years. President Obama captured the Latino vote in large part by promising comprehensive immigration reform.
The reality is that under him forced deportations have sky rocketed. On average 1,000 a day. More then a million since he took office. In the vast majority of cases the only crime has been to be in the US illegally. The result has been millions of divided families, often with children who enjoy legal status because they were born here and the parents fearing deportation.
Hispanic voters are deeply disappointed by the actions of the Obama administration and scared by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of his Republican rivals. They have never felt this uncomfortable and unwelcome.
I spoke to Kat Rodriguez who runs the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, a help centre for Hispanic immigrants in Tucson. She is scathing about the effect of President Obama’s policies. “In terms of the immigration issue, he has been devastating to our community,” she told me. Devastating.
Because so many families mixed status a crack down against “illegals” produces pain felt by the whole community. And yet, more than ever before, they are beginning to realize the power of their vote. They are now the largest minority and the fastest growing. They live in strategically vital swing states like Colorado, New Mexico and even North Carolina. They can make or break a Presidency. And in the year 2012, they know it.
Follow @mattfrei on Twitter.