Monday, April 6, 2009

Governing the Border through Crime

Sunday's NYTimes carried a fascinating feature about how city governments near the border are using crime as the focal point to balance competing demands to both respect and integrate undocumented aliens and drive them out. Randy Kennedy's well researched feature follows Irving, Texas, Mayor Herbert A. Gears, as he tries to manage the resentments brought on by demographic change in what was once a white middle class bedroom community of Dallas, and has become a small "multicultural" city with no majority race or ethnicity.

It was Mayor Gears who chose a law requiring the jail to turn undocumented aliens arrested for crimes over the federal authorities. The feature does a fine job of highlighting the gross injustice this kind of a law inflicts on ordinary residents, while underscoring the attractiveness of "crime" as a category in which to bury (if only temporarily) the contradictions of our current immigration policies.

Just after sunrise one morning last summer, as his two sons hurried out the door to school, Oscar Urbina might have presented a portrait of domestic stability in this Dallas suburb, a 35-year-old man with a nice home, a thriving family and a steady contracting job.

But a few weeks earlier, after buying a Dodge Ram truck at a local dealership, he had been summoned back to deal with some paperwork problems. And shortly after he arrived, so did the police, who arrested him on charges of using a false Social Security number.

Mr. Urbina does not deny it; he has been living illegally in the Dallas area since coming to the country from Mexico in 1993. But the turn of events stunned him in a once-welcoming place where people had never paid much attention to Social Security numbers.

If the arrest had come earlier, it might have had little effect on his life. But two years ago, Irving made a decision, championed by its first-term mayor, Herbert A. Gears, to conduct immigration checks on everyone booked into the local jail. So Mr. Urbina was automatically referred to the federal authorities and now faces possible deportation, becoming one of more than 4,000 illegal immigrants here who have ended up in similar circumstances.

Mr. Gears, 46, is a big, gregarious, politically agile Texan who won re-election last May against an opponent whose campaign promised much tougher immigration measures. The mayor describes the rise of such sentiment around him as disturbing, a manifestation of “domestic extremism,” and he derides its adherents as “the crankies.”

“We defeated the crankies, and no one thought we could,” Mr. Gears said of his re-election. “We’ve defined what our responsibility is, and that’s only to allow the federal government to do its job. It’s not our responsibility to evaluate it or assess whether it’s good or not.”

Mr. Gears happened to be making these points in a booth at his favorite local bar, where he was being served by his favorite waitress, a friendly mother of five — in the country illegally — whom he has known for years and tips lavishly to help her make ends meet.

He acknowledges that Irving’s policy, whose chief goal is to get rid of dangerous criminals who are in the country illegally, has resulted in “casualties,” with many people deported as a result of lesser, nonviolent offenses like driving without a license or insurance.

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