El Paso: the city hears the first battle cries in America’s explosive immigration debate


A wave of migrants entering the US from a Mexico bloodied by the drug war promises to be the most divisive issue in the 2012 elections

Ed Vulliamy in El Paso
Barack Obama shakes hands with pople after speaking on immigration at the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso, Texas. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

A few paces from the most dangerous city in the world, President Barack Obama embarked on his 2012 re-election campaign last week by clutching the thorns of its most potentially divisive issue: immigration.
The location for a landmark speech could not have been more cogent: Chamizal Memorial Park was built to commemorate the last in more than a century of frontier disputes between Mexico and the US, settled in 1963. Obama’s itinerary added another theme: trade. He toured the cargo yards beside the Bridge of the Americas, beneath a vast, billowing Mexican flag – trade between Mexico and the US is worth $340bn a year, and rising, to America’s battered economy. It was, surprisingly, Obama’s first visit to the frontier.
In El Paso, the issue of immigration entwines crucially with another: border security, and the abyss into which El Paso’s twin city on the other side of the Rio Grande, Ciudad Juárez – cauldron and kernel of Mexico’s drug war – is sinking. El Paso, meanwhile, is the second-safest city of its size in the US, and so the immediate message was clear. “We have strengthened border security beyond what many believed was possible,” said Obama.
How the crowd, mostly Hispanic, loved him when he added that, of course, the Republicans would try to “move the goalposts” and demand more. “Maybe they’ll say we need a moat. Maybe they’ll want alligators in the moat!” he suggested.
But a speechwriter’s wit will not settle the issue that is pulling the US apart, as demonstrated by two rival protests outside the entrance to the visit’s ticket-only area, while the band played: one by immigrant rights groups demanding Obama live up to his campaign promises and act more firmly and swiftly over immigration reform, and another brandishing the Republican party’s favourite slogans: “Border security first” and “Amnesty? Never!”
Immigration is as decisive as it is divisive with the burgeoning Latino populations of border and western states. Meanwhile, the backlash among white populations means that, down here, “national security” means controlling migration.
There are an estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the US, mostly from Latin America, and there is bitter division over whether these are people with rights and are essential to a failing economy, or criminals worthy of no more than a deportation flight.
The backstage action behind last week’s campaign launch is a bitter, crucial and highly symbolic court battle between the federal government and a potentially increasing number of western and border states, starting with Arizona, through which half of all illegal immigrants pass and where the lines of political combat were also drawn last year. The state passed “SB 1070”, which empowered the police to stop anyone “reasonably suspicious” (ie Hispanic) and demand proof of legal status, threatening deportation if none was forthcoming.
The measure outraged immigrant rights groups and liberals appalled at the prospect of law-abiding, hard-working families being torn apart. The sheriff of Yuma county refused to implement the measure, as did his counterpart in Pima, Clarence Dupnik, whose outspoken tolerance on race made him an international figure after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and many others in Tucson. But the law won support among white voters, especially after the murder of a rancher, Robert Krentz, last year by marauding border-crossers near the town of Douglas.
The US government challenged Arizona, arguing that the measure was unconstitutional, since immigration was a federal matter beyond state jurisdiction. The government won an injunction putting SB 1070 on hold, and later denied Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, the right to appeal. But the combative governor last month announced she would petition the Supreme Court, insisting that “Arizona and other states have a sovereign right and obligation to protect their citizens and enforce immigration law”. Other states followed Arizona: Utah, Georgia and Florida have measures in place, while others are preparing theirs. Utah has also been challenged by the government. A federal judge in Salt Lake City blocked its anti-immigrant sanction last week.
In an election that will be partly fought between what the centre and left call “the union” and the right calls “big government”, invoking the civil war notion of “states’ rights”, these court cases are incendiary – immigration replacing slavery as the issue.
Into this furore, Obama rolled his dice: “I do not believe the United States of America should be in the business of separating families. That’s not right, we can do better,” he said. But he added the careful construction that “being a nation of laws goes hand in hand with being a nation of immigrants”.
He cited the wonderfully American instance of José Hernández, son of an illegal farm worker who dreamed of being an astronaut. “A few years later, he found himself more than 100 miles above the surface of the Earth, staring out of the window of the shuttle Discovery, and was remembering the boy in the California fields with that crazy dream that in America everything is possible. Think about that, El Paso. That’s the American dream right there. That’s what we’re fighting for.”
There was wisdom as well as wit and whimsy in Obama’s speech. He set out a solid and complicated electoral platform balancing the requirements of law and immigration; it had something for the right, a little more for the left, and much for the middle ground.
For the right, continued enforcement of the law and border security. For the left, punishment of businesses that exploit illegal workers, and adjustment of immigration laws to unite families more quickly. And for the middle ground, a path to residency for illegal immigrants that requires them to pay a fine, learn English, pay taxes and undergo background checks as first steps towards a lengthy citizenship process; provision to farms of a legal way to hire illegal immigrants and provide a path for those workers to get legal status. Also, to revamp the legal immigration system in a way that enables the “brightest and best” to study and set up in business; and to pass the “Dream Act”, which allows those brought to the US illegally as children to study there and serve in the military.
But there were two 500lb gorillas sitting in the impenitent sun of Chamizal Memorial Park that no one dared discuss. The first was that Obama did not push for these reforms while his party controlled the US Congress, but since then, Congress has become Republican.
So, on the one hand, there was the reaction of Jennifer Allen of the Tucson-based Border Action Network: “These are some of the same good words we heard from President Obama as a candidate last time round. The challenge is turning these words into meaningful action, so this doesn’t just come across like this was to get the Latino vote.” And on the other, that of the House majority on Capitol Hill, as represented by Representative Elton Gallegy of the immigration sub-committee: “Providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants… without requiring illegal immigrants to return to their country of origin and apply for legal status is amnesty. Amnesty will not pass Congress, Mr President.”
The other gorilla is the fact that migration and the drug war are now inseparable – the trade of the old freelance bandit “coyotes” who bring millions of people across the 2,100-mile (3,400km) border has been commandeered and streamlined by narco cartels. The worst single massacre of the war to date was not of drug-runners but migrants, 72 of them, who refused to pay a quota to the Zetas paramilitary cartel and were summarily executed in Tamaulipas last October.
While the war rages, Obama will always face the rhetoric such as that of Brewer, who said: “He should have spoken to our ranchers who live with drug-runners and human-smugglers crossing their lands. He should have met our law enforcement officers who are frequently outgunned by heavily armed cartels.”
Many people crossed the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez on Tuesday to hear the president, either for a glance at his motorcade, or as part of a visit to relatives or shopping. Most have relatives on the US side, who said how much they adored Obama for his promised counter-attack against the Republican – as well as the cartels’ – assault on their trans-border way of life.
Many of those who crossed, browsed that day’s edition of the tabloid PM, which carried news that a mother and child had been among those killed in the city the previous day, taking its toll this year to 859 – just a 15-minute walk across the bridge and the trickle of a river away from the presidential podium in America’s second-safest city.

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