Hudson (N.H.) police Chief Richard E. Gendron says he has nothing against immigration but warns that "if you want to come to this country, come in the front door." Otherwise, he vows, illegal aliens caught in his town of 25,000 will be charged with criminal trespass.
Gendron's officers have done just that, intercepting three Mexicans and four Brazilians on their way to restaurant and landscaping jobs; during traffic stops, they admitted to being in the U.S. illegally. As Gendron awaits a mid-July court test of his novel legal approach, he's fielding laudatory calls and e-mails, including praise from state legislators.
New Hampshire is part of a fast-spreading grassroots backlash whose message to Washington is simple: Seal the borders from illegal immigration, or we'll take matters into our own hands. The outcry has reached all the way to President George W. Bush, who was warned recently by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) to pull back from the Administration's goal of providing guest worker status to undocumented workers in the U.S. Instead, DeLay told reporters after an early June legislative strategy session, "we have to be very clear...about protecting our borders before we start talking about immigration" reform. The White House is now looking to highlight strict enforcement rather than its amnesty plan.
A shift in the rhetoric may not be enough, however. Across the country, local officials are howling over the use of scarce tax dollars to provide health care, education, welfare, and other benefits for illegals. In Danbury, Conn., Mayor Mark Boughton has called for the state police to begin arresting illegal aliens. Immigration foes in Colorado are trying to place a measure on the 2006 ballot similar to Arizona's Proposition 200 in 2004 that cut off some state aid, including welfare benefits, to illegals. In Idaho, Canyon County Commissioner Robert Vasquez proposes to sue local businesses under federal anti-racketeering laws if they hire undocumented workers. And on May 26, Mayor Alan Autry of Fresno, Calif., proposed a two-year moratorium on all immigration, saying: "The jails are overflowing with people we don't even know, and the hospitals are packed with people using the ER as their primary doctor, putting those hospitals near bankruptcy."
The uprising is spreading in reaction to a new burst of illegal immigration. Since 2000, 1.4 million Mexicans have come to the U.S., and fully 85% of them have entered illegally, according to a new study by the Pew Hispanic Center. Often young, poor, and unskilled -- half have not completed high school -- and in low-wage jobs that don't offer health benefits, they can strain local resources.
Both major parties are torn internally over how to handle the problem. Business-friendly Republicans want to satisfy employers' appetite for low-wage labor by passing the Administration's guest worker program. An even more forgiving bill sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) would allow illegals to apply for citizenship. But the GOP also wants to score points for securing the borders against terrorists and criminals.
Democrats are divided, too. They are sympathetic to the struggles of immigrants, legal and illegal alike, and would like to hold on to their edge among Hispanic voters by appearing more welcoming to both groups. "These immigrants come to the U.S. to live the American Dream, but they're often exploited," says Michele L. Waslin, director of immigration studies at the National Council of La Raza, which favors the McCain-Kennedy bill. But the Democrats are also mindful that the undocumented compete with legal immigrants for the lowest-skilled jobs, often holding down pay.
At the same time, the mounting opposition to illegal immigration is causing problems for politicians of all stripes. In a June 2 Fox News poll of 900 registered voters, fully 79% said they favored stationing the military at the border to stop illegals. A mid-May NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,005 adults found 58% disapproving of Bush's amnesty proposal while just 38% approved.
Given those numbers and the widening spread of illegal immigration into once untouched regions, further protests are likely. Organizers of a 30-day border vigil by private citizens in April on a 23-mile strip of desert in Arizona are planning a similar effort on California's southern flank on Sept. 16, Mexican Independence Day. The volunteer border guards plan to expand later into Texas and New Mexico.
But even as authorities and volunteers have scrambled to hold them back, job-seeking immigrants have become adept at gaming the leaky enforcement system. Brazilians, for example, are entering the U.S. from Mexico this year at double the rate of 2004, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. One reason: Word has spread that any non-Mexican caught entering the U.S. from the south -- dubbed OTMs or "other than Mexican" -- won't be immediately sent back. Instead, they get a paper giving an immigration hearing date, generally weeks away. Clutching this slip, officially called a "notice to appear" but widely known as a permiso, a Brazilian can roam the U.S. until the hearing date. Nine of 10 cases are no-shows.
The frustrated Border Patrol calls the slip the "notice to disappear," and agents deride the system as "catch and release." But the agency lacks the space to detain those they stop, since the 94,000 total beds reserved in federal immigration detention facilities are mostly occupied by convicted alien criminals. Even those ordered deported by the slow-moving immigration appeals system often simply disappear. There are now roughly 460,000 of such so-called absconders in the U.S., according to the Dept. of Homeland Security.
Police Chief Gendron insists that catching illegals isn't just a federal issue. "This is a law enforcement problem, and when you cross that border without documentation, you have committed a crime," he says. His strategy of charging illegals with trespassing may not withstand a court test, he acknowledges, but he's heartened that a half-dozen state legislators say they're willing to write a new law if it doesn't. The longer Washington continues its finger-in-the-dike strategy, the more heartland voters are likely to insist that immigration is indeed a local matter.
By Paul Magnusson in Hudson, N.H., with Ben Elgin in San Mateo, Calif.