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Border Mayors On Frontier Of Immigration Debate


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, unemployment is up, the GDP is down, but economists are still kind of happy - well, as happy as economists get. NPR's Marilyn Geewax is going to interpret all that for us in just a few minutes. But first, we turn to a debate that our national leaders are finally taking up again over how to fix an immigration system that just about everybody agrees is broken.

Earlier this week, both President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators presented ideas for doing that, but we were thinking this would be a good time to check in with two leaders who are close to the issue because they lead cities that are close to the southern border. Scott Smith is the mayor of Mesa, Arizona. He's a Republican. Welcome back, Mayor Smith. Thanks for joining us once again.

MAYOR SCOTT SMITH: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And David Coss is the mayor of Santa Fe, New Mexico. He's a Democrat. Mayor Coss, welcome to you.

MAYOR DAVID COSS: Thank you for having me. Great to be with you.

MARTIN: So, Mayor Smith, I'm going to check - I'm going to go to you first. We spoke with you last during the Republican National Convention back in August, and we talked a little bit about immigration ideas back then. At the time, you said that the Dream Act, the president's deferred action plans that would, you know, offer a path to citizenship for people - young people who were brought here, you know, by their parents as minors and so forth - but anyway, you said that those were Band-Aids, that they were counterproductive. So talk about the latest ideas coming out of Washington. Do you think that they do a better of job of actually addressing the issue?

SMITH: Well, I think they do a better job, and there's no doubt that the election in November changed that discussion from when we were talking in Tampa in August. It gave a certain sense of urgency, and it also made Republicans realize this was an issue they could no longer ignore. If they did so, they did so at their own peril.

I was very, very encouraged by both the president and the senators coming out and actually putting something on the table that I think begins a serious discussion with hopes for some serious action.

MARTIN: So what's the most important thing going forward that you would like these federal leaders to keep in mind, from your perspective as a local leader who's probably sort of seeing this every day?

SMITH: Well, you know, the problem with our immigration debate is we seem to talk about the wrong things. Or if we talk about things, we don't recognize how important this is to us. There's a couple of things we deal with here in Arizona, and that is, in local cities, we bear the brunt of immigration that is not fixed.

We bear the brunt of the - in Arizona, because we are a corridor for organized crime, human smuggling, drugs, all those things that now have seemed to come together. Our local police, our local citizens, we see this every day. And yet sometimes we feel like we get no real support, because it gets lost in the rhetoric.

But on the other hand, immigration is, at the foremost, an economic issue. Whether we're talking about unskilled labor, or whether we're talking about being able to meet the needs of a world economy in the 21st century with highly skilled labor, we seem to not really hit the whole thing during the debate.

MARTIN: OK. Mayor Coss, what about you? What's the most important thing you want national leaders to keep in mind, from your perspective as a person who's seeing this every day?

COSS: Well, you know, I think first, I agree with a lot of what Mayor Smith was saying. But I want them to hurry. You know, this has been an issue in our communities for decades now that costs us as a community every day. I think the most important thing is to bring our community members that are without documentation right now, give them some legal status. Bring them out of the shadows and let them participate in our communities.

MARTIN: You know, you actually talked about this. You talked about the immigration issue during your State of the City speech last October.

COSS: Right.

MARTIN: And one of the things that you said is that one of the reason that New Mexico allows young people, regardless of immigration status, to attend college if they graduated from a New Mexico high school, and that with proper identification, you issue drivers licenses so that people can work and attend to the daily business of life. Talk a little bit more about that. And is that something that you want national leaders to pursue as a model as they go forward?

COSS: Well, you know, I absolutely do want national leaders to pursue that, and I'm really pleased that the state of Illinois recently signed legislation allowing drivers' licenses. But I think one of the most important stories in Santa Fe, in my community, are the Dreamers, are the young people that are here that may have come when they were two or three or five or six years old that are now - they're now in college.

They're some of the energy and the vitality in the Santa Fe community, and in the New Mexico community. So we thought, as a state, it just made sense to support their educations and to support their ability to get an education and to get a job with the driver's license program. So - and I'm very proud of what my state has done and what my city has done in terms of dealing with immigration, but we really do need the federal government - I'm so encouraged by the president and Congress right now - to act quickly.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about some of the immigration reform ideas. But we are checking with two local leaders who are both leading cities in border states: Mayor Scott Smith from Mesa, Arizona, Mayor David Coss from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Mayor Smith, one of the things we were noticing is, you know, Arizona has been very much in the news because of a very tough stance, what is described as a very sort of tough enforcement-driven stance on immigration.

New Mexico is taking a different road, even though, you know, they both have Republican governors. They're both led by women, interestingly enough. But they seem to have a very different philosophy around these issues, and I was just wondering if you agree with my assessment, Mayor Smith. And why do you think that is?

SMITH: Well, they do have different philosophies, because they're - even though we're neighbors, our histories are intertwined, the immigration issue and experience in New Mexico is very different than the issue in Arizona. Arizona is now the funnel. Arizona is where well over half the traffic of human smuggling passes through.

Illegal drugs - a vast majority of illegal drugs now pass through Arizona. And that's due to geography. That's due to where our highways and cities are located. We have become the superhighway. So we have a very different experience with the bad side, the down side, the organized crime side.

And it's very different than Texas, New Mexico or California. Everything seems to have funneled through Arizona. And I think that's built up, very much, a frustration here that there's a - that stems from a lack of trust that the federal government truly understands our issues. A lot of the things that are done in Arizona are really acts of desperation, in many ways, and screams of frustration help deal with this. And that's very different than what I've found, you know, the other border states. The attitudes are very different here.

MARTIN: Can I ask Mayor Coss about that? What do you think about that, Mayor Coss?

COSS: Well, you know, New Mexico used to be part of Mexico, so we do have a very different attitude and experience. I think the issues that Scott's mentioning of human trafficking, drug trafficking, organized crime, we do experience those in New Mexico. We're having gang-related shootings and murders right in my city, in my region, which is almost 300 miles north of the border.

And, you know, I share Mayor Smith's frustration at the lack of inaction from the federal government. But it's not just in enforcement that we always need that help. It's in recognizing how many families live and work in our communities that need to come out of this legal limbo that they've been in for sometimes now decades. And that's holding back our town.

MARTIN: Mayor Smith, can I run something by you? A number of people - including the so-called Gang of Eight senators - suggest that the border needs to be secured before undocumented immigrants can seek citizenship. President Obama, in his remarks, suggested on Tuesday that the border is already secure. I just want to play a short clip from his remarks.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We've put more boots on the ground on the southern border than at any time in our history. And today, illegal crossings are down nearly 80 percent from their peak in 2000.

MARTIN: So, Mayor Smith, do you think that that's true? Do you think that the border is already secure, and that now it's time to turn to other matters?

SMITH: I think that's the problem, is that nobody knows how to truly define what secure is. And I know that in Arizona, that's a big deal. And I think what we'll have to do to get some sort of agreement is come to some level of trust. There's no way that I think you can define some objective standard that is going to make everybody happy. But what you can do and what I think would go a long way is become some sort of mechanism, some sort of plan that states that the federal government truly is putting forth an effort and I think that means the administration needs to move a little bit and recognize that there's a lack of trust.

On the other side, those who are clamoring for security, needs to understand that having a zero tolerance border is not achievable, but there are things that can be done to make people have trust that the effort is there - whether it be internal enforcement, whether it be new boots on the ground. I don't know what the answer is, but that's certainly going to be a major issue between bringing the two sides together - is that there be some sort of plan, some level of trust that that's an important issue and it's being dealt with in a level that makes people feel comfortable.

Right now, they don't in Arizona. I think that the federal government certainly has stepped up their efforts, but you know, I don't know how you make everybody happy on that. We're going to have to find common ground.

MARTIN: Mayor Coss, I'm going to give you the last word. Do you feel trust or confidence? Perhaps we could put it that way, that - or even, perhaps, vindication, that the issue that so consumes so much of your time and energy is finally getting the attention that it deserves, and do you feel that there will be some kind of plan put into place, at least in the...

COSS: You know, I think...

MARTIN: the near future?

COSS: I think the time has come. I think my community - all of us U.S. citizens and immigrant community feel very hopeful right now to see the president and Congress taking this issue on. I don't think enforcement is our first priority. I think the Obama Administration has done more enforcement and more work than anybody else ever has, but we in Santa Fe and New Mexico don't really want to see a militarized border.

I think, again, the most important thing are the families and the workers that are with us right now in New Mexico, and giving them a status where they can be part of our communities, full members of our community, getting educations, getting jobs, starting businesses, raising families. That's just critical right now.

MARTIN: David Coss is the mayor of Santa Fe, New Mexico. He's a Democrat. He joined us from there. Scott Smith is the mayor of Mesa, Arizona. He's a Republican. He spoke with us from NPR member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Arizona.

Thank you both so much for joining us, mayors, both.

SMITH: Thank you.

COSS: Thank you. Good job, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.