Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Security First?

by Scott Nicol

The “gang of eight” U.S. Senators, four Democrats and four Republicans, have released a set of principles that they see as the basis for comprehensive immigration reform legislation.  The fact that they are trying to resolve this issue is a positive step, and has the potential to allow millions of people to finally live normal lives, free of fear and exploitation.  But a key component of their plan calls into question whether that promise will ever be realized.

Immigrants’ advocates have long held that a “pathway to citizenship” must be part of any immigration reform plan, allowing those currently in the United States without papers to earn U.S. citizenship. 

Conservative icon Ronald Reagan agreed with this, saying, "I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally."   Today anti-immigrant groups spit out the term “amnesty” as a curse, and many in the current crop of Republican politicians (Texas’ U.S. Senators prominent among them) use it to slander the very idea of allowing the undocumented to become citizens.

Though Cornyn and Cruz present the rejection of earned citizenship as a principled ideological stance, many conservative pundits have pointed out that Hispanics tend to vote for Democrats – 71% voted for Barack Obama – so allowing the 11 million or so mostly, but not entirely, Hispanic undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. to vote might hurt Republicans in future elections.

Alienating Hispanic voters is costing Republicans elections now, but adding more Hispanic voters could hurt Republicans in the future.  What are they to do?

The answer lies in the “gang of eight” principles. 

The recently unveiled framework makes border security a prerequisite for the issuance of green cards to undocumented immigrants.  After that they could apply for full citizenship, going to the “back of the line.”

Of course the length of that line depends on what country they come from since each nation is assigned a quota; whether they are related by blood or marriage to U.S. citizens; and their income and skills.  For a Mexican national with no family in the United States, no money or special skills, the line that they will be going to the back of is over a century long.

But until the border is declared secure, that hundred-plus-year clock will not start ticking.

The principles released by the “gang of eight” do not define a secure border, so it is impossible to know how many years, how many new Border Patrol agents, how many more drones, how many miles of new border wall, it might take to get there. 

The Senate plan calls for a commission made up of “governors, attorneys general, and community leaders living along the Southwest border“ to determine when the border has been secured. 

Immigrants’ advocates cried foul at the notion that Texas governor Rick Perry and Arizona’s Jan Brewer could hold the citizenship of millions hostage indefinitely by refusing to declare the border secure. 

Perry manages to find money for Highway Patrol speedboats with machine guns mounted on the front to patrol the Rio Grande at the same time as he cuts $4.5 billion from Texas’ schools.  Brewer has committed Arizona’s scarce financial resources to defending SB 1070, the state law intended to make immigrants’ lives so hellish that they “self-deport.” 

Neither are particularly objective in their assessment of the border.

The gang seems to have viewed sacrificing the border to get a bill as a given, and they sold us out so quickly that it never occurred to them that making border security a prerequisite could put citizenship in permanent limbo.

Democratic gang members have responded to the criticism with assurances that the Department of Homeland Security would develop a new, workable definition of a secure border tied to concrete metrics rather than the delusions of Perry and Brewer.  They now say the commission will be strictly advisory.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is certainly further form the lunatic fringe than the governors of Texas and Arizona, but the Department of Homeland Security has a terrible record on the border.

Upon taking office Napolitano refused to halt the condemnation of land and construction of border walls in South Texas and elsewhere.  Early last year her underlings finally succeeded in pressuring the US section of the International Boundary and Water Commission to approve walls in the floodplain at Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos, despite the risk to residents on both sides of the river and the damage that the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge and Roma Bluffs World Birding Center will suffer.

Last week Secretary Napolitano spoke in El Paso, ranked the safest big city in the United States for the third year running, and declared that the border is more secure than ever, and that the idea that immigration reform should be held hostage to border security “suffers from a fundamental flaw.” 

Her argument is backed by the numbers.  Border Patrol apprehensions are at a forty year low, and the Pew Research Center has found that net migration from Mexico is effectively at zero, with as many people heading south as north.

So why has her agency continued to push for border walls?  Politics, of course.

At the beginning of her tenure halting border wall construction would have opened up the newly elected President Obama to attacks in the press.  The “gang of eight” likewise assume that throwing the border under the bus is a political necessity to get a bill through Congress, so they do it without hesitation.

Immigration reform should not be held hostage to “border security”, whether it is Perry and Brewer or Napolitano who decide on what that means.  There will always be conflicting political needs that will prevent the honest assessment and agreement that would allow reform to move forward.

When the Senators draft their bill in the coming weeks border security must not be a prerequisite for anything else.  Otherwise real reform will always be just over the horizon, one more agent, one more drone, one more wall away.

Politics is an abstraction, but the actual border consists of real lives and real landscapes.  We are not a bargaining chip for politicians who have never dipped a toe in the Rio Grande, walked a trail in the LRGV National Wildlife Refuge, or looked a South Texas citrus grower in the eye.