With the U.S. Senate’s vote last week against cloture on a comprehensive immigration reform package, options for addressing the issue will now likely face individual hurdles within Congress. Meanwhile, a fragile status quo remains along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Members of New Mexico’s Senate delegation voted against S. 1639. Pete Domenici, who helped draft the compromise legislation, concluded Thursday the bill was “neither workable nor realistic.”
“We must address our border and immigration crisis,” Domenici said last week. “I know first-hand the need to secure our borders because every day my constituents tell me about the problems they face because of illegal immigrants breaching the Southwest border.
“We have a crisis on our borders that must be resolved.”
Domenici highlighted the link between providing $4.4 billion in mandatory border security funding to passage of a full bill; the limitations and restrictions on the temporary worker program and the impact on New Mexico small businesses; and the probability that the House of Representatives will not consider the issue as reasons for his decision to withdraw support for the package.
In addition, Domenici said that a section referring to the Z or “laser” visa program could have unintended consequences for New Mexico.
“As I understand it, New Mexico state law would allow all Z visa holders under this bill to qualify for Medicaid,” Domenici said. “That matter needs to be reviewed and its impacts fully considered so that the Congress can avoid unintended effects of this bill.”
Mexican nationals are eligible for a laser visa once they complete a lengthy application process. Visa holders may then travel within 25 miles of the border to visit family or to shop at Americans businesses. The visas allow travel for up to 30 days.
Domenici and Sen. Jeff Bingaman have introduced legislation several times during the past two years to expand the program. In April, they sponsored a bill to expand the laser visa area to 100 miles. The Silver City town council recently passed a resolution in support of such an expansion.
“I absolutely support it,” James Marshall, Silver City mayor, said. “That’s mostly based on the fact that Chihuahua citizens spend an estimates $3 million in the states every year.
“They can’t do that legally in Silver City with the current limit.”
Marshall, along with other local elected officials and a number of area residents, has been pushing for improved relations with Mexican counterparts. Last year, he traveled to Nueva Casa Grandes to spend time with that community’s mayor.
“There’s a lot we can learn from them,” Marshall said. “I think they’ve shown to be very thoughtful and progressive in resolving issues.”
According to Marshall, a delegation of Mexican officials and representatives will travel to New Mexico next month.
“We’re mostly trying to develop relationships at this point,” he said, “and identify issues that we see.”
Those include things ranging from border crossings and tourism to trans-border aquifers. With water already a hot topic in the Southwest, Marshall indicated that aquifers that straddle both sides of the border could be difficult to address.
“It’s an issue we should talk about at some point,” he said, “and it’s going to be a really complicated issue.”
While some in the area are working to improve relations with Mexico, others, like the Grant County Sheriffs Department, are tasked with policing the less positive elements near the border.
According to Capt. Joe Sublasky, deputies have participated in Operation Stonegarden since May.
“It’s funded federally through the Department of Homeland Security,” Sublasky said. “Basically, it’s a collaborative effort with the Border Patrol, border sheriffs, border communities and other agencies.”
Sublasky told the Daily Press that every Grant County sheriffs deputy recently attended an all-day training session related to the operation.
“We’re looking for any criminal activity, any drugs coming across the border, trying to stop any terrorists from coming across,” Sublasky said. “Anything that happens to involve law enforcement.”
He said the funding will continue through Nov. 2008, and said deputies are paid overtime on a voluntary basis.
“Officers work it on their day off,” he said. “On any given day, we have two officers down there.”
Sublasky said the operations has helped fill a coverage gap in Hachita for the department.
“It’s more than 100 miles to get down there,” he said. “The position we got, we filled in Mimbres; there’s just more population there.”
Because of the operation, Sublasky said, Hachita residents have a regular police presence.
“We’re down there quite often,” he said. “We really have had a lot of man power out there.”
Sheriff’s departments in Dona AÃ±a, Hidalgo, Grant and Luna counties are participating, and are working in conjunction with the Border Patrol.
“If we make a traffic stop and there are illegal aliens,” Sublasky said, “we notify Border Patrol and they do what they need to do.”
Domenici said more Border Patrols agents are needed, and vowed to work toward that goal.
“What is clear to me is that the American people want the measures in the bill like providing 20,000 border patrol agents, constructing 370 miles of border fencing and 300 miles of border vehicle barriers, putting 105 radar and camera towers on the border, and using four unmanned aerial vehicles for border security in place before we address the millions of unauthorized aliens living and working in the United States,” Domenici said in a news release.
Two conservation organizations have also expressed a desire to see technology used to secure the border. In a report released last month, the Wildlands Project and Defenders of Wildlife stressed that north-south wildlife migration routes be maintained.
According to the report, four pathways in Arizona and New Mexico are used by several native species, including jaguars, bears and wolves, and several birds, fish and amphibians. The report stresses that “virtual wall” technologies — such as unmanned aerial surveillance, motion sensors, laser barriers, and infrared cameras — be used as an alternative to solid barriers that block wildlife movement.
Domenici has already indicated he wants to move forward with providing additional funding to secure the border before addressing the immigration process and the estimated 12 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
“I have come to the conclusion it would be more appropriate to provide $4.4 billion in border security funding in a separate emergency spending bill to fund these border security initiatives,” he said.
The naturalization process in the bill was a sticking point for Bingaman, who said the U.S. should “replace the broken system with one that is both workable and addresses the shortcomings that exist under current law.”
“As written, this legislation created an unnecessarily complicated guest worker program that would have depressed American wages and encouraged immigrants to overstay their visas,” he said, “while making dramatic changes — but not necessarily for the better — to the process individuals would use to legally immigrate to our country.”
For his part, Marshall said he wished Congress would “hurry up” and address the issues.
“There is a population down there that wants to travel and do tourism and do migrant work,” he said. “I would like to see a system developed that would facilitate that.”