Congressmen travel to Nogales for big-picture view of the border

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Posted: Tuesday, February 14, 2012 7:47 am

The council chambers at City Hall were converted into a congressional hearing room on Friday as a four-member delegation of U.S. representatives came to town to hear local officials and community leaders testify on border issues.

The ad hoc field hearing was organized by Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who represents Nogales and Rio Rico in Congress. He said the idea was to expand the discussion of border policy to include economic and social issues as well as security concerns.

"We understand enforcement. We are not begrudging or taking away from that effort," Grijalva said at the start of the meeting. "But we also feel that you need a complete picture of what the border is and what the border needs."

Nogales customs broker Terry Shannon Jr. told the delegation - which also included Democratic Reps. Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), Mike Honda (Calif.) and Silvestre Reyes (Texas) - that the border is a place of vital economic importance to the U.S. economy, and that it needs a more efficient system of allowing people and commercial products to cross between the U.S. and Mexico.

Sheriff Antonio Estrada told the congressmen that despite alarmist rhetoric, Santa Cruz County is a safe place for its residents, though it relies on a large contingent of law enforcement officers to stay that way. And Tubac businessmen Gary Brasher testified that his community, which relies heavily on tourism, has suffered from the establishment of a permanent Border Patrol checkpoint at its outskirts.

The comments from Shannon, Estrada and Brasher, as well as testimony provided at the hearing by Pima County Medical Examiner Gregory and Daniel Rodriguez of the Arizona DREAM Coalition, will be entered into the congressional record.

Grijalva said the testimony would be useful to the delegation "as we go back and advocate with our colleagues about the reality of the border."

Economy, security

Shannon told the panel that cross-border trade between the U.S. and Mexico accounts for $22 billion in commerce per year, and that in Arizona alone, Mexican visitors spend $2.6 billion each year.

Despite the importance of that economic activity, he said, a lack of proper staffing at the ports of entry has led to long wait times that discourage cross-border transit. He noted that while 34 million people crossed through Arizona's ports in 2005, the number fell to 23 million in 2010.

"While some of this decline is attributed to the world economy, the hours of waiting are not helping the situation," Shannon said. "Folks that would cross on a whim to come shopping need to plan ahead, or they just don't come at all."

Shannon said he does not begrudge Washington's recent interest in funding more agents and equipment for the Border Patrol, but he wishes U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which staffs the ports of entry, would receive similar attention.

"What I'm asking for is balance between the two agencies," he said.

Gutierrez, who is from Chicago, asked Shannon if the commercial logjam at the southwest ports is an issue that should concern his constituents.

"Is it important to people in Illinois, is it important to people in other parts of the United States of America, or is it just an Arizona issue whether we fix this or not?" Gutierrez asked.

Shannon pointed to a map he had submitted as part of his testimony that shows how states around the country, including Illinois, depend on trade with Mexico.

"That's the message we're trying to get out now," he said. "It's not just the border states that are getting a benefit from trading with Mexico.

During his remarks, Estrada told the panel that despite the county's proximity to Mexico, and the fact that there is no river or expanse of desert separating it from Sonora, county residents are not under immediate threat from drug violence spilling over the border.

"Regardless of the rhetoric that we hear, it is not raining bullets here in Nogales and Santa Cruz County," the sheriff said.

He said the county's large number of law enforcement officers - the highest officer-resident ratio in the country - helps keep residents safe.

"The crimes committed here are mostly related to property, such as shoplifting and burglary, but even those have decreased greatly over the past few years," Estrada said.

However, he added, illegal border-crossers who pass through the county are often victimized by border bandits. As evidence, he cited a triple homicide last November in which the bodies of three suspected drug mules who had been shot execution-style were found in the Tumacacori Mountains. And he noted another incident in which two migrant women were raped.

Still, Estrada said, this type of violence is "mostly contained within the outermost, remote regions of Santa Cruz County," a side effect of the buildup in border security in the populated areas.

Honda, the congressman from California, asked Estrada for ideas on how the government could formulate policy to improve border security. The sheriff cited the need to curb Americans' appetite for illegal drugs.

"Somehow we have to reduce that demand," he said.

Estrada also suggested making it easier for migrant workers to obtain visas to cross the border legally, creating a process by which undocumented people with a record of good behavior are given a path to legal residency, and working with Mexico to improve its economy and create more jobs for its people.

But he rejected the idea that the border should somehow be sealed, saying during his testimony: "You cannot seal the border. You will never be able to do that. The border has to be active, it has to be lively."

Tubac tourism, migrant deaths

Brasher, the Tubac businessman, told the delegation that his organization Coalition for a Safe and Secure Border is "extraordinarily supportive" of the Border Patrol's efforts.

"However, I can also say that the operation of the checkpoint on Interstate 19 just north of the village of Tubac has also had a significant negative impact on our local economy," he said.

While locals are accustomed to passing through the checkpoint, it's a different story for visitors, Brasher said.

"Even people who haven't done anything wrong, they just get a little nervous having to go through that," he said.

As evidence, he said, the Green Valley Chamber of Commerce, which used to receive a large volume of calls asking about tourist attractions in Tubac, now receives very few. He said some callers ask whether it's safe to visit the area, and if they'll need a passport "to get back into Arizona" at the checkpoint.

Brasher said he had also heard of some Canadians who no longer wanted to come play golf in Tubac because of the checkpoint. If a non-U.S. citizen forgets his or her passport at a hotel in Tucson, he said, a stop at the checkpoint can mean an anxiety-provoking secondary revision.

Brasher added that his group is in favor of mobile, temporary checkpoints along all local roadways leading north from the border. "As far as we're concerned, that would be a vastly preferable option," he said.

Hess, who serves as medical examiner not just for Pima County, but for numerous other Arizona counties including Santa Cruz, told the congressmen that his office has been investigating approximately 150 to 200 migrant deaths a year since 2011. In 2005, a year that saw record-setting summer heat, Hess said, the medical examiner's office was so overwhelmed with bodies that it had to buy a refrigerated truck to deal with the overflow.

"It's almost like having a mass disaster every year, spread out over a year rather than one at a time," Hess said of the constant body count. "It's almost the same population it would be in a plane crash."

Gutierrez, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' task force on immigration, said the extent of the problem was "really shocking."

"If there's anything I've learned from this trip, it's that ... you can't leave behind the tragedy, and the humanity of people dying on this border," he said.

Rodriguez, an Arizona State University graduate and co-founder of the Arizona DREAM Coalition, testified via Internet video chat to the difficulties faced by young people who were brought to the United States by their parents without legal documentation.

"We have experienced a lot of ‘taking away' here," he said of recent laws targeting undocumented students and their families. "Taking away of scholarships, taking away of opportunities, taking away of freedoms, and taking away, unfortunately, of loved ones."

The congressmen's trip to the area was also set to include a tour of the border and a closed-door security briefing with law enforcement officials.

Speaking at the hearing at Nogales City Hall, Shannon thanked the delegation for coming to Nogales.

"I think it is so very important that discussions on the issues of the border happen at the border and not hundreds of miles from the border, or thousands of miles from the border," he said.