Cameras were rolling on April 18 as the so-called Gang of Eight senators unveiled their sweeping immigration bill in the rarified halls of Congress.
"The legislation isn't perfect," conceded Arizona Sen. John McCain as he leaned into the podium before a bipartisan crowd. But "the legislation we're offering is a comprehensive and workable solution to our broken immigration system that piecemeal responses have not and cannot repair."
Among other things, the bill would steer certain immigrants already in the United States before 2012 toward obtaining green cards. It would legalize so-called Dreamers, those brought to the United States illegally as children. And it would open a new pathway for immigrants who can't get visas through their families or employers.
But also taking the podium that day was Jeff Flake, Arizona's newly elected junior senator. He quickly trotted out the right wing's conditions for supporting any measure that might ease immigration restrictions.
"Let me just tell you," Flake said, "Arizona has borne the brunt of the federal government's failure to have a secure border for a long time."
Back here in border country, the facts suggest that our border with Mexico is already hugely secure. It bristles with the ambience of an armed camp, awash in an excess of Border Patrol agents and oft-squandered funds dispatched to cooperating local cop shops. Then there's the 650 miles of border fencing that seems most adept at preventing wildlife from sneaking into America.
And this appears to have been the case for some time; according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Department of Homeland Security spent roughly $3 billion for security efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2010 alone. Over that time, the Border Patrol attained full operational control of 873 miles of the 2,000-mile Southwest border.
In the fall of 2011, Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher reported to Congress that Homeland Security's 650-mile fence was just two miles shy of the length believed necessary by agency tacticians.
More numbers: The number of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents has doubled since 2004, to a record 21,000. Even though illegal border crossings dropped by nearly half over the past four years, CBP funding jumped by a whopping 60 percent, topping $11 billion last year.
The new Senate bill would further boost that security apparatus by demanding 100 percent monitoring of the border, and a 90 percent success rate in catching illegal crossers. If those goals weren't reached within five years, the task would be taken over by a newly created border commission.
But that's not all. The 844-page bill would also beef up border-crosser prosecutions in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, shovel more border-security money to local law enforcement agencies through a program called Operation Stonegarden, fund the construction of additional Border Patrol stations, and allow the Border Patrol increased access across public lands.
Although this security enhancement will cost taxpayers billions of dollars, it curiously receives little criticism from fiscal hawks in Congress, who nonetheless always seem ready to slash comparatively minuscule funding for programs aiding the poor.
Even as the Senate's pomp was playing out in Washington, D.C., activists who actually dwell in the borderlands were holding a news conference of their own, in the downtown headquarters of Tucson's Border Action Network.
The gathering included various reps from environmental and human rights organizations. And they generally praised McCain, Flake and others for attempting immigration reform at all.
"The Border Action Network salutes the Gang of Eight for this bill, imperfect as it is," said Mike Wilson, BAN's policy director. "The crown jewel, if there is one, is the pathway to citizenship. Citizenship is what you and I as our birthright take for granted. Eleven million people do not have that privilege." In the meantime, "they live in fear and a state of hopelessness, not knowing if they can be deported at any time."
He was echoed by BAN'S executive director, Juanita Molina, who said that activists were "very excited" that the nation's undocumented immigrants could finally be brought "out of the shadows."
But like the rest, Molina thought the bill's security components went way too far, and were "disproportionate to the risk posed by economic migrants." The "further criminalization of this population perpetuates the violence," she said, "especially the cartel violence that we see. The violence, and increase in human trafficking, have made (the border) a more and more dangerous place ...
"We see over 150 people each year die in just the (Border Patrol's) Tucson sector. This is an increase that's occurred since militarization of the border" after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
And as a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation, which inhabits a 70,000-square-mile reservation west of Tucson, Wilson has seen the steadily growing encroachment of federal law enforcement on those lands, accompanied by an increasing disruption of tribal ways of life.
"There are several provisions in the bill that address tribal law enforcement agencies working with the Department of Homeland Security," he said. "There is specific reference to Operation Stonegarden, specific references to the National Guard coming back to the Southwest. Our tribal lands have had Border Patrol (on them) for the last 10 years. And so my concern is what the relationship to the (Tohono O'odham) is going to be, within the context of more border security."
More context was laid out by Dan Millis of the Sierra Club, a steady critic of DHS tactics throughout the borderlands. "The border enforcement section of this bill seems like it was written by someone from another planet," he said. "The bill provides immediate access by Border Patrol to all federal lands along the border—but the Border Patrol already has complete immediate access to all federal lands and public and private lands along the border. In fact, they have too much access in some areas. Off-road impact in some of those areas has been very damaging."
Recently, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity produced a video that portrays vast stretches of Southern Arizona's public lands ravaged by miles of renegade roads. A 2011 analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted more than 8,000 miles of illegal roads on the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge west of Tucson alone. Many of those miles were allegedly created by the Border Patrol's off-road vehicles.
Then Millis took a poke at McCain, who as a presidential candidate in 2008 called on Congress to just complete the "danged fence" along the border.
"To Sen. McCain, I would say the danged fence is complete," Millis said.
Then again, along the border, it seems that too much is never quite enough.