PHOENIX -- Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano toured the Arizona-Mexico border Tuesday as Sen. John McCain defended his proposed immigration overhaul in suburban Arizona in the latest sign that this border state will play a prominent role in the national immigration reform debate.
Napolitano toured the border near Nogales with the highest-ranking official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the incoming chairman of the Senate's homeland security committee and an Arizona congressman.
On the same day, McCain was hosting town hall meetings in Green Valley and Sun Lakes, during which he was expected to sell his immigration plan focused on border security. A bipartisan group of senators- including Arizona's McCain and fellow Republican Jeff Flake- want assurances on border security as Congress weighs proposals that would represent the biggest changes to immigration law in nearly 30 years. Arizona is the only state with both of its senators working on immigration reform in Congress, a sign of the state's widely debated border security issues.
Immigration activists and elected officials say it's only natural for Arizona to continue to take the forefront in the national conversation on immigration after its years of internal debate on how to handle scores of immigrants.
``Arizona has played a tremendous role to ensure that people see what is wrong with our immigration laws now,'' said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, a Phoenix-based organization that seeks social justice for Latinos.
Arizona gained international recognition as an epicenter of the U.S. immigration debate when it passed its tough anti-immigrant law in 2010, with state lawmakers arguing the federal government wasn't adequately preventing illegal immigration. A handful of other states- including Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah- have since adopted variations of Arizona's law.
``No state in this country has had more experience with enforcement-only immigration laws than Arizona,'' said Todd Landfried, executive director of Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform, which opposes the state's tough immigration laws.
Landfried suggested Congress send a delegation to meet with Arizona employers who have had trouble hiring because of immigration laws, and workers who can't find jobs because they lack legal documentation.
``We've got a lot of insights and experiences that really should be heard by people who are trying to draft this stuff,'' he said.
Arizona has the nation's eighth-highest population of illegal immigrants, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Center. In 2010, illegal immigrants represented roughly 6 percent of the state's population.
For years, Arizona's illegal immigrants, especially young students, have clamored for new laws allowing them to pursue legal status. Activists say Arizona's anti-immigrant laws inspired many illegal immigrants to come out of the shadows and demand more rights. Last week, some college students gathered outside Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's office to demand driver's licenses.
``They no longer are afraid to come and say, `I am not able to vote, but I can make my voice heard, and they have to listen to me,''' said community organizer Abril Gallardo.
A report released in January showed the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson sector remains the busiest along the U.S.-Mexico border. The review found a 6 percent dip in apprehensions borderwide between 2008 and 2011. But the Tucson sector accounted for 38 percent of all drug seizures and 37 percent of all apprehensions despite covering just 13 percent of the border area.
Brewer said last week after touring the border near Tucson that the border cannot be declared safe until the people living near it feel secure from drug and human trafficking.
Others insist the border is safe. Democratic Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona told Latino and black community leaders at a Phoenix luncheon Tuesday that Arizonans need to spread the word on how much more secure the border has become in recent years.
``There are lots of folks who don't live in Arizona who have no idea what the border is like,'' Sinema said. ``Letting people know what measures have been taken in the last few years would be helpful.''
Napolitano toured the border Tuesday afternoon with U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Commissioner David Aguilar, Democratic Rep. Ron Barber of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware. Carper is the incoming chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Napolitano has highlighted historic numbers of Border Patrol agents across the Southwest, along with technology enhancements. She also has made border security trips this month to El Paso, Texas, and San Diego.
Cristina Silva can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/cristymsilva