Border fencing

Leo Banks Contributor
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Gabriela Saucedo Mercer now has fans around the country. Talk radio stars Glenn Beck and Tammy Bruce have spoken about her and the YouTube video in which she stars has received more than a quarter million hits and counting. What did Saucedo-Mercer do to bring herself to national notice?

She stood up and spoke her mind.

On April 27, the 46-year-old nutritional company distributor addressed the Tucson City Council in support of SB1070, the Arizona law requiring police to check the immigration status of those they’ve detained for other violations.

More than approving of the controversial measure, her remarks were a ringing endorsement of the rule of law, and the view that citizenship is a privilege to be earned the right way.

“I’m shocked at the reaction my speech has gotten,” says Saucedo Mercer, who came legally to this country from Mexico in 1986 and become a citizen five years later. “I keep thinking, ‘What have I started?’”

It looks like a political brushfire, and one that’s long overdue. Saucedo-Mercer gave voice to a largely unheard segment of the Hispanic population — those who treasure the law, and understand the danger our open border represents to national security, public safety and the very concepts of sovereignty and citizenship.

“The people I hear from in south Texas want the border secure, especially after 9/11,” says Maria Martinez, Hispanic outreach coordinator for the Immigration Reform Coalition of Texas. “Our highest priority should be making sure terrorists are not among us and the only way to do that is to have a defensible border.”

As part of her job, Martinez speaks with Hispanics in towns like Laredo, Corpus Christi and Brownsville. Residents tell her they fear a spreading gang problem as Mexican drug cartels extend their reach across the border.

“The border in south Texas is wide open and people don’t like what’s happening in their neighborhoods as a result,” says Martinez. “They don’t feel their children are as safe as they were growing up in the same places.”

Missing from these conversations is any mention of ethnicity. In hardscrabble towns on or near the border, Hispanics understand that safety and security are fundamentally American problems.

When Melissa Salas-Blair, 34, a Navy veteran and activist in the Texas Republican Party, sits down at her family’s kitchen table in El Paso and talks about border issues, ethnicity never comes up.

“Never have I heard anyone in my family say illegal immigration is about race or ethnicity,” says Salas-Blair, 34, a writer and speaker specializing in bringing young Hispanics into politics. “The media look at it that way, but regular folks don’t. We talk about the same things all Americans talk about, family, jobs and safety,”

But the fallout from illegal immigration disproportionately impacts legal and U.S.-born Hispanics. Illegal aliens largely settle in Hispanic neighborhoods, burdening doctors, hospitals and schools that often are already struggling.

On the hot-button issue of crime, the truth is less clear, says Steve Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies. Both sides in the immigration argument buttress their claims with crime data. The open borders side says illegal immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than the native born, while many enforcement advocates argue the opposite.

The research doesn’t firmly support either conclusion, Camarota says. But there are disturbing trends, in Arizona especially.

Seventeen percent of the illegal aliens arrested after crossing the Arizona border have criminal records. And those living in the path of illegal crossers suffer intimidation, breaks ins, vehicle thefts and vandalism, much of which doesn’t get recorded in crime statistics.

Maricopa County has experienced an explosion in kidnappings since 2004, the majority associated with the trafficking of people and drugs. Phoenix now ranks second in the world, behind only Mexico City, in kidnappings.

This is occurring even as the FBI reports, in a preliminary release of it uniform crime data, a significant overall decline in crime in Phoenix for 2009.

“Some data from Arizona do suggest illegal immigrants are disproportionately associated with crime,” Camarota says. “But that doesn’t mean the same is happening nationally. Arizona could be the exception.”

What the nation believes about illegal immigration often depends on the lens through which the issue is seen. The most powerful filter is the media, which rely on left-leaning groups like La Raza and LULAC to represent Hispanic thinking.

But in many ways, they don’t. On this point, Camarota is unambiguous. “The diversity and complexity of views among Hispanic voters on immigration is in no way reflected in the views of Hispanic elites,” he says. “Whether among opinion leaders or advocacy groups, that divide is enormous.”

Steve Navarre experienced it first hand when he ran for school board in Plano, Texas, in May of 2009. He lost in part because of the influence LULAC held with Democratic voters.

Four months after the election, he helped launch the Conservative Hispanic Society, a fast-growing group that offers Hispanics a safe place to express their fundamental conservatism, which doesn’t always mean voting Republican.

“Conservative Democrats in south Texas are sometimes more conservative than the Republicans who run against him,” says Navarre.

Even within the Society, discussions about illegal immigration often get raucous. But there is broad agreement that following the law and securing our borders are imperatives of nationhood.

Perhaps no group believes this more strongly than Hispanics who’ve emigrated legally, says Claudia White, president of Arizonans for Immigration Control. She says the legal Hispanics she knows are not only frustrated, but embarrassed at seeing illegal aliens protest in the streets to demand citizenship and voting rights.

“I don’t understand migrants seeing themselves as a special category of human being exempt from the law,” says White, who is Mexican, born in northern Sonora. “I can’t imagine going to another country where I’m not permitted to live and asking for special privileges.”

Navarre says, “Americans have always had an uneasy feeling about people who try to get the reward without doing the work.”

Several of those interviewed spoke of their compassion for illegal immigrants. White, for example, objects to their exploitation – by coyotes who lead them into the country, by some left-wing activists who use them as political props once they’re here, and business people, liberal and conservative, who use the cheap labor to boost profits.

But Maria Martinez, whose grandmother was a migrant worker, says the left’s concept of compassion amounts to allowing anyone to cross our dangerous border, at the mercy of the elements and bandits, then work under sometimes miserable conditions.

“A secure border and an orderly immigration system are the most compassionate things we can do,” says Martinez.

Effective fencing can serve the goal of keeping people alive, while helping the country know who is entering, an imperative of sovereignty. “Mexico firmly upholds its sovereignty and they’re 100 percent right to do that,” White says. “But I’d ask they give the U.S. the same right. It’s about respect.”

Nogales, Ariz., businessman Jim Price, whose maternal grandparents were both Mexican, is one of those conservative Democrats Navarre mentions. He has a unique view of the fence.

From the front door of his home, Price can see into one of the poorest neighborhoods of Nogales, Sonora, where drug smugglers gather, and he can see workers building the fence on the American side. His opinion of the barrier is personal and uncompromising.

“If you trespass in my home you’re a criminal, and my home begins at the border,” says Price, 74, who has worked in Mexico as well, including as an officer at a manufacturing company in Sonora, and as manager of a tungsten mine in Baja.

Price remembers the chaos of downtown Nogales in the early 1990s, when the border fence consisted of aluminum panels that could be muscled aside to enter, and pushed back into place to hide the crime.

Illegal aliens would often hole up in restaurants and even inside Sacred Heart Church, waiting for rides north. Price says coyotes would walk the aisles, with Sunday Mass in progress, raise a hand to signal illegals in the pews, then a handful of supposed ‘worshippers’ would stand and follow him out to a waiting vehicle.

“Downtown belonged to the coyotes and the illegals,” says Price, who served on then-Arizona governor Janet Napolitano’s Latino Advisory Committee from 2002-2004. The fence in place today, an imperfect barrier to be sure, has helped law enforcement make downtown Nogales livable again.

Price wants to see that happen in communities across Arizona and the Southwest, as does YouTube star, Saucedo Mercer. As she responds to requests from strangers around the country to become Facebook friends, she often thinks back to the excitement she felt on July 3, 1991, the day she became a citizen.

“Naturalized citizens have to swear to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States,” says Saucedo Mercer. “I feel lucky because most American born-citizens never get to say those words. But I did and they came from the bottom of my heart.”

Leo W. Banks has been a journalist in Arizona for more than 30 years. He has covered border issues for The Wall Street Journal, National ReviewTucson Weekly and others.