Even those who are appalled by Arizona’s harsh new immigration law — as we are — recognize that the state’s misguided decision to take federal matters into its own legislative hands did not come out of the blue. Arizona is the preferred superhighway for drug and human smugglers. Phoenix is the kidnapping capital of the nation, and almost all of those abducted are either illegal immigrants or linked to the drug trade. The recent killing of a rancher in southern Arizona has increased the sense of lawlessness and danger at the border; police believe the killer was involved with drug trafficking. Fed up with federal inaction, Arizona lashed out.
California was the model for such behavior in the 1990s, when San Diego County was the nation’s main thoroughfare for illegal immigration. In 1994, Californians approved Proposition 187, which would have denied most healthcare, education and social services to illegal immigrants. It was mean-spirited, and a federal court ultimately found it unconstitutional, but it had one positive result: President Clinton started Operation Gatekeeper, beefing up border fencing, tripling the number of underground sensors and almost doubling the number of Border Patrol agents. And California’s problem shifted east, to Arizona. So it was deja vu Tuesday when President Obama announced he was sending 1,200 National Guard troops to the border for a year.
The troops will be stationed in Arizona and other border states, where they’ll help local law enforcement intercept drug traffickers. It is an overdue step. For political reasons, including the delicate relationship with Mexico, Obama has tried to resist giving the appearance of militarizing the border. But the lack of security, particularly in areas a stone’s throw from Mexico’s drug war, undermines public confidence in the ability of the federal government to regulate immigration. And if any meaningful immigration reform is to be passed, it will require that confidence.
Over the years, presidents have tended to view immigration through an economic lens, paying heed to issues of bilateral trade and facilitating the flow of low-skilled labor. But addressing the broken immigration system, including making it easier for employers to hire foreign workers legally and bringing forward the 11 million undocumented people living in the shadows of American society, will only be achieved when the public sees that Washington can successfully secure the border.
The Obama administration deserves credit for stepping up enforcement efforts. We hope the deployment of additional National Guard troops is not merely a stopgap measure to appease a restless public, but becomes a genuine, long-term commitment to border enforcement.