Migrant solutions debated
Arizona Republic
December 12, 2007

(Phoenix, AZ) Author: Ronald J. Hansen, The Arizona Republic
Estimated printed pages: 3
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Away from protesters and surrounded by others who want changes to the nation's immigration policies, a group of state politicians, business leaders and government officials called on Arizona to calmly lead with local solutions to the divisive issue.
Members of the group, which met Tuesday at the downtown Phoenix campus of Arizona State University, seemed surprised at how much common ground they shared, a sign of how deeply the illegal immigration issue has fractured the state in recent years.

Above all, the group suggested implementation of a guest-worker program guided by economic need rather than arbitrary quotas. Participants also wanted the public to be better informed on a subject they said is often driven by prejudice, and for the federal government to pay for the expenses local authorities bear for illegal immigrants.

Sen. Pete Rios, D-Hayden, found that Chris Simcox, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, agreed with him that kids of illegal immigrants deserve health care and education as well as citizens.

"Before, I had written him off," Rios said after the forum, which had more than 50 invited guests. Instead, Rios left holding a business card for Simcox. "If we don't replicate this all over the state, it doesn't do us a lot of good," he said.

The forum, sponsored by the Thomas R. Brown Foundations and other groups, offered a civil discussion of immigration, which has at times seemed elusive. For months, testy exchanges between pickets near a furniture store in east Phoenix have served as the dominant image of the immigration debate locally. Those battles have gone on while business groups have battled the state in court to overturn Arizona's employer-sanctions law, which would punish businesses that hire illegal workers.

State Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, struck the most hard-line approach on the issue Tuesday. While others called the influx of illegal immigrants an economic issue fueled by a shortage of citizens willing to work menial labor, Kavanagh said the solution should not be to reward those who broke the law to get here. He also suggested that illegal immigrants fill local jails and said that English-language programs drain tax dollars.

One sign of the local cost is that federal authorities have provided less than $5 million for counties along the Mexican border for jailing immigrants charged with crimes, said Tanis Salant, director of the School of Public Administration and Policy at the University of Arizona.

Most in the group, however, seemed to agree with Thomas Rankin, the mayor of Florence, who accused elected officials of pandering to public fears.

"We've got to stop making this political," he said. "It's about human beings."

"After (the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks), people lost all sense of what immigration reform should be," said Mary Rose Wilcox, a member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. "We need to get away from the hatred. It's going to destroy this country."

Common ground

Consensus recommendations from Tuesday's forum:

Create a guest-worker program. Most illegal immigrants come to work, so give them a way to do so without breaking the law.

Secure the border. By allowing guest workers, U.S. authorities could focus on drug dealers and security hazards instead of job-seekers.

Pressure the federal government. It's essential to better reimburse local officials for the costs of illegal immigrants.

Inform the public. Too many still don't have an accurate picture of the full economic impact of immigrant labor
Edition:  Final Chaser
Section:  Business
Page:  D1