As Obama steps up border enforcement, advocates rethink their strategy

By Michael W. Savage
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

When President Obama announced last month that he would ask Congress for $500 million and deploy the National Guard to beef up security on the border with Mexico, several advocacy groups in the region that had campaigned for a different approach were forced to confront a disappointing reality: Washington still wasn't listening to them.

Despite their high hopes for the Obama administration, it was clear they had made little headway with their message that the government's ever-increasing emphasis on border enforcement is futile. They decided they needed to rethink their strategies, and fast.

So, for the first time, civil rights campaigners, community workers and advocacy groups from across the 2,000-mile southwestern border gathered for two days to figure out where they had gone wrong and brainstorm a new battle plan. Last weekend, in the innocuous surroundings of a community center in San Diego, the soul-searching began.

"It was a summit, of sorts," said Andrea Guerrero, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego. "We had a strategy session for all of us to come together and think about how we can push back on the ideas" coming from Washington.

Their meeting reflects a wave of hand-wringing and strategizing among groups on one side of the nation's bitter debate over immigration policy, heightened by the recent focus on Arizona's strict new anti-immigration law.

Members of groups from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California were among the roughly 45 delegates who came together in San Diego. At the top of the agenda was how to counter Obama's message that further security measures are needed, including 1,000 more border agents and as many as 1,200 National Guard troops. The delegates acknowledged that their goal, comprehensive immigration reform, is unlikely to be taken up by Congress this year.

"At this point, we're looking at George W. Bush longingly," joked Louie Gilot of the Border Network for Human Rights, based in El Paso. "We were promised change by the administration. But we're not only getting the same enforcement-only policy, we're getting even more of it."

Homeland Security Department officials disputed that, citing a speech by Secretary Janet Napolitano this week in which she argued that the administration has backed calls for comprehensive immigration reform and has adopted a "smarter" approach than its predecessor.

Administration officials said Tuesday that Obama will be returning to the issue in a speech scheduled for Thursday in Washington.

The border groups had hoped to convince administration officials that, with arrests of illegal immigrants on the border at the lowest levels since the early 1970s, the current enforcement strategy is working. They noted that the number of border agents has already risen from about 11,000 in 2004 to 20,000 today.

"We have been in talks with the administration, but recent announcements have taken back that dialogue almost to the beginning," said Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network for Human Rights. The groups concluded that it was time to change their tone with the federal government.

Guerrero said some of the advocates had been meeting over the past year and a half with Customs and Border Protection officials to encourage more humane policies, including cellphone towers to help border crossers who find themselves endangered in the desert. The groups had also encouraged a better relationship between the agency and local communities.

"The terms of the dialogue were to keep it confidential," Guerrero said, but that meant there was no accountability. "I think we've learned from that engagement that it should no longer be the case. We spent a lot of resources, time and work on that, and our efforts have not been matched in kind."

The groups also agreed that they need to change the public's perception that the border region is plagued by crime. "The image of the border as a war zone is widely accepted," Gilot said. "It has been very hard to change that. El Paso is a great city. We've had one murder since the beginning of the year, and it was a domestic issue -- nothing to do with drugs."

The groups pledged to combine their efforts. "The goal is to change the way we are discussing the issues of enforcement at the national level," Garcia said. "Enforcement is needed -- we recognize that. But it has to be infused with our more precious American values, such as accountability, fiscal responsibility, respect to human rights and community security."

Aside from the plan to form common strategies for communications, organization and policy, the groups decided that their best hope is helping people get to know the border region.

"We need to tell a story about the communities there -- who we are and what we want," Guerrero said.

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