SAN DIEGO — The Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Eight has titled its long-awaited immigration reform bill the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.
But the truth is, most of the legislation – which sounds entirely reasonable and might actually stand a chance of making it through Congress because each side gets a little of what they want but neither gets everything – isn’t very modern at all. The bill is full of good ideas, but not many of them are new.
There’s a plan to bring in temporary foreign workers. And a conditional path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. And restrictions on whom U.S. employers can hire.
We’ve traveled this road before. Many of these same provisions were also in the bill’s similarly titled predecessor: the Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007. That bill was defeated by an unlikely tag team of conservative Republicans pandering to nativists and liberal Democrats out to protect organized labor – both of which are terrified of immigrants, albeit for different reasons.
But the most troubling throwback in the new legislation is something that you always find as the lead item in any proposed immigration-reform measure – this nonsensical obsession with more and more enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border, whether we need it or not and whether it works or not.
And speaking of nonsensical, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama has already declared insufficient the border security provisions in the compromise worked out by the Gang of Eight. It’s funny that you never hear Sessions talking about attacking the problem at its roots by going after employers who typically emerge from such discussions unscathed.
The new immigration bill would spend $4.5 billion to increase security on the border – in addition to the billions we already spend each year to supposedly do just that.
Of course, there is plenty of money for more fencing. Americans love their fences despite the fact that this tactic has been shown to backfire. Physical barriers don’t just keep people out. They also keep them in. Immigrants can’t return home during those months when they’re out of work, or to visit mom for Mother’s Day, because they’re afraid they won’t be able to get back. You build more fences, and you wind up with more immigrants stuck on this side of the border. Good plan.
There’s also funding for additional Border Patrol and customs agents, despite the fact that we already have more than 20,000 of them – twice as many as we had a decade ago – and despite the fact that Border Patrol officials have complained that they can’t train and supervise all of the agents they have now, let alone accommodate new ones.
We’d be doing this with the objective of apprehending 90 percent of illegal border crossers. Unless that goal is met, there would be no pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States.
Already, this sounds a little hokey. What in the world does one of these things have to do with the other? The horse has already left the stable, so now we lock the gate? Could it be that we’ve all bought into this specious argument that giving those who are already here a shot at a better life only encourages more people to come? There has never been any evidence of this being the case. The only thing we know for sure is that immigrants come when there are jobs available, and that they don’t come when there aren’t.
Besides, how would the Border Patrol know exactly how many border crossers got past them in order to arrive at the magical “90 percent” figure? The whole objective of crossing the border illegally is not to be detected by immigration officials.
And what, if by some bureaucratic sleight of hand, the 2,000-mile border with Mexico is never declared fully “secure” – something that those of us who live along the border can tell you is a near certainty? What happens to the millions of undocumented people already in the United States? Do they stay in the shadows, exploited by everyone from employers to immigration lawyers to mortgage lenders?
Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with securing our nation’s borders, and not just between the United States and Mexico but also between the United States and Canada. But it’s much easier said than done, and it is not a silver bullet for all our problems. Recent history does teach us a few things if we’re willing to listen.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at email@example.com.