The fate of 11 million people could hinge on the interpretation of border security.
An immigration reform blueprint by a bipartisan group of senators includes a path to U.S. citizenship for those who are in the country illegally. But the blueprint, released Monday, specifies that the federal government must first certify that the U.S.-Mexico border is secure.
Immigrant rights groups fear that millions of people will be in limbo until the security threshold appeases those dissatisfied with the border's status.
“The border is more secure today than in any previous administration,” Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, told The Times.
Immigration enforcement groups disagree, however, contending that the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona needs more fortification.
Pat Sexton, president of the Tucson chapter of the Arizona Latino Republican Assn., said securing the northern and southern borders will keep out those seeking to cross illegally once word gets out about the possibility of legal residency.
“But define 'securing the border.' That’s going to be so politically difficult to do,” Sexton said.
The Obama administration has poured money and manpower toward border security, and Department of Homeland Security statistics show a decrease in violent crime and apprehensions along most of the border region. Some of the safest communities are along the border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say.
But that evaluation is not universal. And those who say the U.S. still needs to beef up security often disagree on how to do it. Some want more boots on the ground; others want more technology.
The question for the immigration plan is how border security will be measured, Hincapié said.
“What measurable outcome are they looking for, with respect to being able to say the border is completely secure?" she asked. "Can the border ever be completely secure?”
The Yuma, San Diego and El Centro border sectors are good examples of what security should look like along the rest of the border, said Bill Montgomery, the Maricopa County attorney. He partnered with the Real Arizona Coalition to craft an immigration reform plan. The group is made up of business and community leaders who aim to inform Arizonans about immigration reform and related issues.
Further securing the border is possible, Montgomery said.
“The question is to what degree will the federal government be willing to provide the resources for it to be done,” he said. “We’re not talking about building a fence in every linear foot to achieve operational control. How you do that can be different from sector to sector.”
Increased security comes with a hefty price tag. But Montgomery said it should be a priority to ensure national security.
Phoenix is a main thoroughfare for those who slip across the southern border, he said.
“This is where people and drugs come before they are then placed in other vehicles to go to another location,” Montgomery said. “We are ground zero for illegal immigration.”