Close to the border

Close to the border

I’m no fan of boycotts; as James Kirkpatrick once said about writing newspaper editorials, they give you a warm feeling, and nobody notices what you’ve done.

When Arizona passed its controversial immigration law in April, my colleagues in the American Jewish Press Association were deep into the planning of our annual June convention, to be held this year in Scottsdale, Ariz. Even the members who hated the law knew it was too late to go elsewhere; besides, the planners agreed, as Jews and journalists we should be sensitive to the idea of boycotts as collective punishment.

But we couldn’t ignore SB 1070 either. Members of the local community, including passionate opponents of the law, urged us to come, learn more, and tell the story. We quickly put together a panel discussion with members of the local Jewish community representing various sides on the issue.

The conference took place last week, and the panel discussion turned out to be more civil than I suppose I’d hoped it would be. In fact, the three opponents and one (sort of) supporter of the law were mostly in agreement that in the absence of federal action, Arizona had to do something.

That something, of course, was a law that requires police to stop those who are “reasonably suspected of being unlawfully present” and refer them to federal immigration authorities. Critics, like panelist Rabbi John Linder of Temple Solel in Scottsdale, say the law encourages racial profiling of Latinos, burdens local law enforcement, and ignores how tightly undocumented workers are woven in the fabric of Arizona’s economy.

Still, a sizable majority of Arizonans support the law, saying the feds have punted when it comes to combating drug trafficking and human smuggling from Mexico. A desert shootout between a deputy sheriff and gunmen wielding AK-47s, along with the slaying of a rancher near the Mexican border, only intensified support for putting border security ahead of civil rights concerns.

The issue “did not come out of nowhere,” said local TV newsman Brahm Resnik, who moderated the discussion. “It was a product of years of neglect, anger, tragedy, and, in some respects, political opportunism.”

In fact, the only politician on the panel, Paulina Vazquez Morris, demonstrated the contortions demanded of Arizona’s office seekers. Morris, the daughter of Cuban-Jewish immigrants, is one of 10 Republican candidates vying for the congressional seat of a retiring incumbent.

Asked whether she supported SB 1070, she couldn’t bring herself to say “yes,” exactly, instead replying it was “inevitable.”

“In a federal vacuum, states will act, and sometimes it takes states to move a nation,” she said. “Our federal government has failed to address a critical issue for Arizona. SB 1070 was inevitable. Something had to be done.”

Other panelists, including Gideon Aronoff, head of HIAS, the Jewish migration and refugee resettlement agency, urged an approach that included border security but acknowledged the reality of hard-working undocumented immigrants already here.

Morris expressed the issue almost exclusively in foreign policy terms.

The problem, she said, was a “hugely profitable human trafficking industry — 21st-century slavery.” And from there she quickly segued into talk of Mexican drug trafficking, including reports that day of 95 murders in Mexico City. “We must secure the borders for national security reasons, to stop the drug trafficking and stop the human trafficking,” she said.

Her solution? “Helping Mexico help itself.” She wants the Mexican government to pass legislation that opens access to credit markets for businesses to prosper in Mexico.

Of course, with our own economy in shambles, fixing Mexico’s may be a tough sell. And, like her focus on those scary murders in Mexico City, her approach struck me as a little distant from the everyday reality of average Arizona residents and typical undocumented immigrants — who, as Resnik reminded us, probably built our hotel and picked the vegetables we ate for lunch.

The HIAS position continues to strike me as reasonable and bipartisan. “The solution is pretty clear,” Aronoff said. “There is a framework introduced in the Senate by Sen. [Charles] Schumer. It involves actually having effective enforcement at borders and the workplace.

“You have to address backlogs in family immigration, people waiting in line to be reunited with family members,” he continued. “You need a path to citizenship [for the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States]. The idea that you can scare 12 million [of them] to leave America is absurd.”

And he nicely pivoted off of Morris’ talk of drug trafficking, suggesting his plan complemented hers.

“Police should be dealing with that and not spending all their time chasing after nannies, busboys, and gardeners,” he said.

I was disappointed that Morris barely acknowledged those nannies, busboys, and gardeners (although I can appreciate her dilemma as a fairly moderate Republican in a tough primary). As much as I appreciated the frustration of Arizona voters, her martial responses suggested why many in the rest of the country think Arizonans are less interested in meaningful reform than, well, collective punishment.

But I came to learn, not judge. As Morris herself said, “We need to elect leaders to take on difficult issues and not just concern themselves with getting elected.”


read more: