E.g., 09/23/2023
E.g., 09/23/2023
Arizona Hosts Groups on Both Sides of the Immigration Debate

Arizona Hosts Groups on Both Sides of the Immigration Debate

In his 2007 State of the Union address, President Bush listed immigration reform as one of the nation's top priorities for the current legislative agenda. His prioritizing of immigration reflects public opinion polls, but while Americans agree that immigration is an issue of concern, they do not agree on the proper solution.

Not surprisingly, debate over immigration issues peaks in the Southwest border regions where both border crossings and migrant deaths directly impact communities.

In no state, perhaps, is the debate more polarized than in Arizona, the entry point for approximately 40 percent of undocumented migrants entering the United States along the Southwest border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

In the November 2006 elections, immigration hardliner Randy Graf, a Republican who sought to represent the state's 8th congressional district, lost to Democrat Gabrielle Giffords in large part because many voters believed he wanted to go too far to fight illegal immigration.

Yet, in the same elections, Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed four propositions aimed at "cracking down" on unauthorized immigration, including one that restricts undocumented immigrants' access to in-state tuition, taxpayer-funded adult education, and child care, among other benefits.

The other propositions deny unauthorized immigrants' access to bail if they have been charged with committing a serious felony; declare English the official language of Arizona; and prevent unauthorized immigrants from being awarded punitive damages in any civil action in any Arizona court.

This article first examines why migrant traffic shifted to Arizona and then the immigration groups that have since become active in the state, including both those that come from a human-rights perspective and favor comprehensive immigration reform, and those concerned with border security and immigration restriction. It then looks at the policy solutions each supports and efforts they have made to achieve them.

Why Migrant Traffic Shifted to Arizona

Arizona experienced a large spike in migrant traffic around 1998, a few years after the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, whose enforcement responsibilities are now part of the Department of Homeland Security) began concentrating its Southwest border-enforcement activities along major entry points, particularly in urban areas. These included San Diego, California (Operation Gatekeeper), and El Paso, Texas (Operation Hold-the-Line, formerly known as Operation Blockade).

The INS aimed to force migrants who decided to cross illegally into more remote and dangerous desert regions. The hope was that doing so would prevent migrants from crossing in the first place.

However, it soon became clear that while apprehensions were dropping in urban regions, they were rising elsewhere. Apprehensions in Arizona rose by 351 percent between 1994 and 2000 according to data analysis by political scientist Wayne Cornelius. In 2004, Border Patrol agents arrested 580,000 unauthorized immigrants in Arizona, nearly 50 percent of the national total.

Numerous organizations have noted an increase in migrant deaths along the border since the 1990s. A 2006 GAO report found that the annual number of migrant border-crossing-related deaths doubled from 266 in 1995 to 472 in 2005. The Tucson, Arizona, region, where 205 of the 218 deaths between 1998 and 2005 took place, was responsible for 94 percent of the increase in deaths.

Promigrant Groups

For faith-based and secular activist groups in Arizona, the main issues are migrant abuse and fatalities. They also focus on the economic and social benefits of migration, and the human cost of current immigration and border-enforcement policies. In general, they work with local government groups, migrant shelters, church groups, and communities in both Mexico and the United States

The involvement of religious groups in migration issues dates back to 1980. The Sanctuary Movement, founded by a Presbyterian church and a Quaker meeting in Tucson, initially gave humanitarian and legal assistance to Guatemalans and Salvadorans fleeing violence at home.

Two years later, the churches defied INS and began providing sanctuary to Central American refugees because none of the refugees they helped had received political asylum. The movement spread and involved more than 500 congregations around the country (for more on the Sanctuary Movement see Central Americans and Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era).

The Sanctuary Movement put immigration policy on the radar screen for faith-based groups, planted the seeds for faith-based activism in the immigration sphere, and helped build coalitions with secular human-rights organizations that were already focused on immigration in Arizona.

In June 1999, some of the movement's key players met in Tucson to decide the course of action for "people of faith" in response to "people dying in the desert." Reverend Robin Hoover, pastor of Tucson's First Christian Church, cofounded Humane Borders in 2000, an organization dedicated to reducing migrant fatalities by putting water tanks in key desert locations and raising public awareness about the human cost of U.S. migration policies in the hope of influencing policy reform.

Humane Borders has placed water tanks in more than 80 locations throughout the Arizona desert and claims to have had as many as 8,000 volunteers over the past six years.

Humane Borders also claims organizational support from 37 groups on both sides of the border. It has collaborated with almost 70 churches as of 2006, as well as human rights organizations, corporate sponsors, and legal advocacy groups. The organization frequently shares volunteers with other migrant advocacy groups.

In addition to Humane Borders, Tucson is home to more than 11 promigrant groups, among them Borderlinks, Coalición de Derechos Humanos/Alianza Indígina Sin Fronteras (Human Rights Coalition/Indigenous Alliance Without Borders), Healing Our Borders, Border Action Network (BAN), Tucson Samaritans, Border Solutions, Coalition to Bring Down the Walls, and the Tucson office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

The coalition No More Deaths (NMD), founded in 2003, brings together many of these groups. NMD places migrant-aid camps throughout the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona and northern Mexico from which volunteers operate "search-and-rescue patrols" and provide migrants with food, water, and medical assistance.

Border Watch Groups

Organizing among border watch groups in southern Arizona also followed the 1998 shift of migrant traffic to desert areas.

While anti-immigrant sentiment has a long history on the Southwest border, there has been a surge of grassroots organizing among border watch groups (called vigilantes by their critics) since the 2001 terrorist attacks. Increasing numbers of Americans are concerned about national security, and border watch groups have successfully channeled that fear towards the Southwest border, which they claim is porous and vulnerable to terrorism.

Sierra Vista rancher and Douglas, Arizona, businessman Roger Barnett founded Cochise County Concerned Citizens (CCCC) in 1999 with 20 local ranchers who supported making citizen arrests of trespassers on their land. Barnett soon teamed up with Glen Spencer's American Border Patrol from California, an organization seeking to "bring the crisis of illegal immigration to the front of the public consciousness," which also organizes armed patrols.

In 2000, Texas-based Ranch Rescue, founded by Jack Foote, opened a chapter in Arizona, where volunteers began patrolling the private land of sympathetic ranchers. While southern Arizona is home to the greatest concentration of border watch groups, the movements have gained popularity and are spreading to other border regions.

The most well-known — and possibly the most influential — group is the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC), dedicated to securing the country's land and sea borders against unauthorized entry.

Based in Scottsdale, Arizona, and founded by Chris Simcox, a former kindergarten teacher from California, MCDC split off from the Minuteman Project, which Simcox and Jim Gilchrest, a retired certified public accountant and Vietnam War veteran from California, founded together in 2004.

Before the separation, Simcox and Gilchrest attracted about 700 volunteers in April 2005 who patrolled a section of the U.S.-Mexico border. This first major campaign garnered national media attention and helped establish Simcox and Gilchrest as commentators on border security.

Policy Approaches and Efforts to Influence Policy

Proimmigrant groups in Arizona generally advocate for comprehensive policy reform but don't always agree on what should be included.

Humane Borders advocates a "responsible guest worker program" that would issue work visas directly to migrants so they would not be tied to any one employer or sector of the economy, and would allow workers to join labor unions. The group also wants legislation that would legalize the undocumented already living and working in the United States, and address the family reunification backlog.

However, Humane Borders has not supported any of the immigration reform proposals on the table, because founder Robin Hoover says they do not take into account migrants' needs. Although Humane Borders does not find any politician's position on immigration wholly satisfactory, the organization favors the approaches of Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who support a path to legalization and eventual citizenship for those presently in the country without authorization.

American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), on the other hand, supported the Senate bill passed in May 2006, which included a path to citizenship for many of the unauthorized in the country (see the June 2006 Policy Beat). AFSC does not support any one politician's approach to immigration reform but would like to see legislation that would permit those who want to work in the United States to do so legally, and would offer migrants the option of becoming U.S. citizens.

Derechos Humanos focuses on policies favoring immigrant integration and fights increased "militarization" of the border (e.g., building high-tech walls, increasing the number of Border Patrol personnel, etc.), a position consistent with Border Action Network (BAN) and Borderlinks.

Proimmigrant groups participate in a number of actions aimed at influencing politicians and public opinion on both the state and national levels. Strategies used in the past have included organizing marches as well as postcard, letter-writing, bumper-sticker, and lawn-sign campaigns; testifying in front of Congress; and sending delegations to Washington, DC, to speak with politicians.

Last year, BAN and other groups participated in a postcard campaign aimed at the state's senators. BAN Executive Director Jennifer Allen says that Senator John McCain(R-AZ) received nearly 15,000 postcards from southern Arizona, and believes the campaign may have had some influence on his position on immigration reform.

Each May, No More Deaths (NMD), Borderlinks, Coalición de Derechos Humanos, and other groups organize a 77-mile walk from the U.S.-Mexico border to Tucson to bring media attention to the issue of migrant deaths.

While Humane Borders and NMD focus on direct aid to migrants, Hoover says he has testified before Congress several times, and has been approached regarding immigration policy recommendations by former Senator John Edwards (D-NC), and Senators McCain and Jon Kyle (R-AZ), among others.

In contrast, border watch groups identify comprehensive immigration reform as amnesty for the unauthorized.

Despite its focus on border enforcement, the MCDC founder Simcox initially criticized the Sensenbrenner bill, which the House passed in December 2005. The bill called for building a high-tech fence along sections of the southern border and making unauthorized presence in the country a felony rather than a civil crime (see the January 2006 Policy Beat).

In a press release issued after the Sensenbrenner bill's passage, Simcox said that the National Guard should be placed on the border, and that possibly "thousands of miles of fence to secure the border" were necessary. In May 2006, President Bush authorized the deployment of 6,000 National Guard units along the U.S.-Mexico border (see the June 2006 Policy Beat).

Over a year later, in early 2007, Simcox says, "We're supporting any legislation and any proposals to further support border security. That's where everything starts and stops — at the border."

MCDC works to influence policy primarily on the local level, although it also conducts national media campaigns. The organization has appeared in nearly every large media outlet, according to Simcox.

MCDC's past actions have included letter-writing campaigns, congressional lobbying, protests (both locally and in Washington, DC), fax blasts, and outreach to universities. The organization has also expanded significantly throughout the United States with 76 chapters in 36 states, Simcox says.

In Simcox's opinion, most politicians espouse rhetoric that includes increased border security, but they do not follow through. The three politicians he trusts most are Representatives Ron Paul (R-TX), Duncan Hunter (R-CA), and Tom Tancredo (R-CO).

Simcox says that in no way does MCDC support Senator McCain's approaches to immigration reform, adding, "I consider McCain to be not a friend of the rule of law in America, and not a friend of national security, and not a friend of the American people."

Looking Ahead

With Democrats in control of Congress and President Bush's continued support for comprehensive reform, Arizona's proimmigrant and border watch groups have adjusted their strategies.

Promigrant groups have greeted Democrats' promise of comprehensive immigration reform with wary optimism. NMD member Margot Cowan, a longtime immigrant-rights activist and one of the founders of Coalición de Derechos Humanos, says that with Democrats in the majority, there is more hope now for comprehensive immigration reform than there has been in the past.

Hoover, the first American to receive the Reconocimiento Cumlaude (from Mexican President Felipe Calderón in December 2006) for his human rights work on the border, is less optimistic despite changes in Congress. "I would argue that the Republicans have stronger incentives for immigration reform than Democrats do — economic interests," he said, adding, "There aren't a bunch of liberals out there calling for open borders."

Hoover says Humane Borders will continue to aid migrants in the desert and to speak on the issue of immigration until true immigration reform is passed.

Indeed, groups on both sides of the debate are focused on Washington.

Arizona's proimmigrant groups plan to target politicians as the 110th Congress begins to tackle immigration legislation.

In March 2007, a coalition of proimmigrant groups from Tucson, including representatives from BAN, AFSC, and local representatives of the immigrant community, met with members of Congress about comprehensive immigration reform.

Other groups have organized letter-writing campaigns, and will continue to educate people within the local community.

MCDC will also focus on Washington, urging members to participate in fax-blasting Congress. The organization has launched a billboard campaign that targets senators seen as supporting comprehensive immigration reform.

Yet Simcox maintains that local efforts remain the most successful. He wants to open more chapters of MCDC throughout the United States.

Arizona's promigrant and border watch groups are likely to become more vocal and probably will continue to expand in both number and influence until they believe policymakers have satisfactorily dealt with the issue.


Allen, Jennifer. 2007. Phone interview by Malia N. Politzer, March 2.

Cornelius, Wayne. 2001. "Death at the Border: the Efficacy and "Unintended" Consequences of U.S. Immigration Control Policy 1993-2000." The Center for Comparative Immigration Studies Working Paper No. 27.

Cornelius, Wayne. 2004. "Controlling 'Unwanted' Immigration: Lessons from the United States, 1993-2005." The Center for Comparative Immigration Studies Working Paper 92.

Cowan, Margot. 2007. Phone interview by Malia N. Politzer, March 3.

Cunningham, Hillary. 2001. "Transnational politics at the edges of sovereignty: social movements, crossings and the state at the U.S.-Mexico Border." Global Networks, 1470-2266

Efrani, Julie A. 2005. "Whose Security? Dilemmas of U.S. Border Security in the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands." Paper presented at the Workshop on European and North American Border Security Policies in Comparative Perspective, School of Public Administration, University of British Columbia. December 23-25.

Hoover, Robin. 2007. Phone interview by Malia N. Politer, March 5.

Humane Borders. "Quick Facts." Humane Borders Website. Available online.

Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. "Press Releases." Minuteman Civil Defense Corps Website. Available online.

Nevins, Joseph. 2002. Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the "Illegal Alien" and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary. New York: Routledge.

Simcox, Chris. 2007. Phone interview by Malia N. Politzer, March 5.

Tobias, Glen A. and Abraham H. Foxman. 2003. Border Disputes: Armed Vigilantes in Arizona. Anti Defamation League.

Wiltfang, Gregory L. 1991. "The Costs and Risks of Social Activism: A study of Sanctuary Movement Activism." Social Forces, 69-4.

United States Government Accountability Office. 2006. Border-Crossing Deaths Have Doubled Since 1995; Border Patrol's Efforts to Prevent Deaths Not Been Fully Evaluated. Available online.