first congressional candidate alan jilka, left, talks with a resident of juarez, mexico during a tour of juarez on sunday, july 25, 2010. “”border security is also an economic issue,” jilka said. “any legislation must take into consideration that the u.s. and mexico conduct over $53 billion in trade at the juarez/el paso border crossing alone.” (photo courtsey of jilka for congress). | buy journal photos


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jilka visits u.s.-mexican border towns


by michael strand | salina journal

when alan jilka met last week with jose reyes ferriz, the mayor of juarez, mexico, the two had lots of common ground; both are graduates of notre dame, and jilka had served three terms as salina’s mayor.

but there are differences, too.

“he’s been mayor for three years, and he’s on his fourth police chief,” jilka said.

“two were assassinated.”

ferriz could point out the window of his office to the spot where a u.s. consulate worker and her husband were gunned down this spring — two more murders in a city roughly the size of omaha that averages more than 200 a month.

“he’s had numerous threats on his life,” jilka said. “his kids go to school in el paso (texas) under assumed names.”

among the sites he saw in juarez was the scorched building where a drug gang just two weeks ago detonated 22 pounds of c-4, after dumping a body in the street and waiting for police and medics to arrive.

jilka, the democratic candidate for the 1st district seat in the u.s. house, spent most of last week on the u.s.- mexico border, talking to mayors, law enforcement officials and others in texas, arizona and mexico, trying to learn more about the border and immigration issues.

“i decided i just didn’t want to be part of the crowd tossing around slogans,” jilka said. “i wanted to come down here and see what i could learn.”

“in campaigns, there’s a tendency to treat everything as a sound bite, and you really do a disservice to the issue when you do that,” jilka said. “the border issue is incredibly complex, and has tremendous implications for both national security and economic well-being.”

his trip confirmed some of his preconceived notions — and overturned others, he said.

“i had the impression that a lot of the drug violence was spilling over the border,” jilka said, but he found out that’s not really happening.

el paso, just across the rio grande from juarez, had just one murder last year, compared to the thousands on the other side of the river, he said.

he found much the same difference in crime rates when talking to jeffrey kirkham, chief of police in nogales, ariz., which sits just across the border from nogales, mexico.

“chief kirkham told me most of his time is spent on drug interdiction and that there hasn’t been a murder in nogales (ariz.) in three years,” jilka said. kirkham, a veteran of the phoenix police department, who’s been chief for seven months, told jilka he’d like to coordinate efforts with police across the border.

but there’s a problem.

“he said he doesn’t know his counterpart in nogales, mexico,” jilka said. “in the seven months he’s been on the job, the chief and assistant chief have both been assassinated. he thinks they have a rotating chief, several people, and don’t want people to know who the chief is.”

“i think the drug people are more careful on this side of the border,” jilka said. “one person told me they know the american system of justice works.”

of course, some violence does cross the border, such as the march murder of arizona rancher robert krentz, apparently by an illegal immigrant.

one of jilka’s stops was the office of arizona congresswoman gabrielle giffords, a democrat whose district includes the arizona-mexico border.

“gabrielle giffords’ office told me that the assassination of the rancher kind of galvanized public sentiment,” and led to arizona’s controversial new immigration enforcement law, he said. “they want to know the border is secure before they talk about anything else.”

jilka sympathizes.

“the arizona officials will tell you that their state economy is dependent upon immigrant labor, but that we cannot let the drug war spill over the border,” he said. “the violence has gotten to the point that arizonans have passed a state law in an attempt to force the federal government to enforce its own federal laws.”

one opponent of that new immigration law jilka met with is tucson mayor bob walkup.

“one of the things he’s worried about is the economic impact,” jilka said. “he said 36 percent of their sales tax revenues come from mexican tourists, and he doesn’t want to discourage mexicans of means from coming there on vacation.”

el paso mayor john cook also told jilka he was worried about economic consequences of closing the border.

“the mayor of el paso told me they have $53 billion in trade just through their port of entry,” jilka said. “it’s in our interest that the border remain an open trade zone and that we have a functioning government on the other side to work with.”

jilka said cook also told him current u.s. immigration policy “favors skilled labor, engineers, doctors — and a new policy needs to take into account our need for unskilled labor.

“he told me he has four kids — and didn’t raise any of them to pluck chickens, but that chickens need to be plucked,” jilka said.

any immigration reform, jilka said, has to start with stronger border security, adding there are cheap, effective things that can be done quickly.

rep. giffords, for example, has been pushing for more cell phone towers along the mexico-arizona border, which is remote and mountainous.

“right now, if a rancher sees someone, he often can’t get a cell phone signal to call the border patrol,” jilka said.

“congress has got to get to work to secure the border,” jilka said.

he said he also favors stronger penalties for businesses that hire illegal aliens.

“there’s also the question of what do you do with the 8 or 10 or 12 million people who are already here,” jilka said. “having that many people living in the shadows can’t be good.”

jilka considers calls to deport 12 million people “impractical.” he doesn’t think a wipe-the-slate amnesty for those millions of people is a good idea, either, but wants to see some way for those illegal aliens to become legal residents.

“we need some sort of pathway to legal immigration,” jilka said.

that pathway, jilka said, should include “the need to learn english, and go through a criminal background check — i think we should deport the criminals — and i think having them pay a fine, or back taxes, is appropriate. some acknowledgment that you were in the country illegally is in order.”

n reporter mike strand can be reached at 822-1418 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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