Our Opinion: Rhetoric will only inflame border passion

Tucson Citizen Dec. 23, 2002

This is a tense period along Arizona's border with Mexico - a period that could flash into volatility if activists on all sides continue to crank up the rhetoric.

It is time to call a halt to the name-calling and demagoguery, to stop labeling people racists or crooks and start looking at ways of defusing a potential tinderbox.

There are a number of private groups patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, assuming what they say is the federal government's failure to stop illegal immigration.

That failure is a fact that cannot be argued.

There has been a failure on short-term goals with an inability to stem illegal crossings of the border despite record number of enforcement agents. And there has been a failure on long-range goals, with the inability of Congress to reach agreement on a guest worker program that would reduce the need for so many people to enter this country illegally.

Because of those failures, it is understandable that people in the southern part of the United States are frustrated, fed-up and willing to take actions into their own hands, with the stated mission of protecting their land and their country.

This is the wrong approach. But what makes it worse is the stepped-up rhetoric that has accompanied the citizen patrols.

Some members of the patrols have spread rumors that Middle Eastern terrorists might be entering the country from Mexico, dressed as Hispanics. There is no credible evidence of that and the Border Patrol's figures do not support that claim.

But the rumor tends to inflame people and empower the citizen patrols.

On the other side, U.S. Rep.-elect Raúl Grijalva labeled the groups "racist" and "cockroaches" and called for a federal investigation into supposed links between the groups and white supremacists.

Grijalva, a southern Arizona Democrat, also said he wants a "declarative condemnation" of the groups by the Border Patrol.

Border Patrol officials wisely steered clear of the fray, pointing out that the patrols have the same right to be on public land and to speak their mind as groups supporting the rights of illegal immigrants.

If people on either side do anything illegal, they should immediately be prosecuted. But citizen patrols are legally entitled to operate if all they do is watch, report and play "weekend warrior" games.

We remain unpersuaded that these groups are the answer. We don't think people with little or no training patrolling with guns will make the border safer.

But neither are we persuaded that federal investigations should be launched against groups because they espouse a politically unpopular message.

The federal government must work on solutions that will make it possible for U.S. employers who need workers to legally hire immigrants who want jobs. In the meantime, ease off the rhetoric.

So long, Trent

Sen. Trent Lott did the right thing when he stepped down Friday as Senate Republican leader two weeks after he made racially insensitive remarks.

The controversy swirling around Lott threatened to undermine his party and the work on President Bush's agenda. And Lott's comments raised real doubts about his attitudes on race relations.

Lott has been elected by Mississippi voters and he should be allowed to continue serving them. But he has no business leading the Republican Party in the Senate.