A Path to Citizenship is Necessary but Beefed up Border Security is not

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On Wednesday July 3rd, Texas Democratic Congressman Filemon Vela resigned from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, in protest of the group’s tacit support for a Senate immigration bill that includes millions of dollars in funding for drones, additional fences and increasing the number of border patrol agents. Vela raises an important concern. As Congress tries to implement immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship, many of the proposals are also focused heavily on securing the border through enforcement and additional fencing. While the xenophobic right has been loudly voicing criticism of immigration reform for quite some time, the progressive left has been relatively quiet, instead opting for legislation heavily laced with enforcement in order to achieve a bipartisan compromise that can lead to comprehensive immigration reform.

What is often lost in the current debate is that enforcement has become a solution in search of a problem. From a strictly statistical point of view, the border is as secure as it has been in over four decades. The number of illegal immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol agents is at its lowest figure since 1971. As recently as 2005, over a million immigrants were apprehended trying to cross the US-Mexico border illegally. Now fewer than 300,000 are captured annually. The Arizona border has seen an estimated 82 percent drop in the number of annual illegal crossings from its high water mark in 2000.

The Pew Research Center estimates that at its peak, the inflow of immigrants from Mexico was 770,000 annually most of them coming illegally. By 2010, the number entering was down to just 140,000 and most of them were arriving legally. In fact, the total population of undocumented immigrants living inside the United States is actually declining as well. The net migration is out of the country with more undocumented immigrants now leaving than entering the United States each year. The illegal immigrant population peaked in 2007 at around 12 million and has declined by about 900,000 individuals since then.

Yet Congress continues to have a fetish for enforcement, calling for added miles of fencing, more agents on the border and other measures they argue are needed to stem a tide of illegal immigrants that has already stopped flowing in. They are erecting a wall to stop a tidal wave that does not exist. Illegal immigration is at low tide right now and the tide is still receding.

The Senate Bill which passed the Democratic controlled Senate by a wide 68-32 margin, calls for doubling the number of federal agents on the border and completing an additional 700 miles of fencing, as well as providing a path to citizenship for immigrants who are already here.

The beefed up security was added in an amendment co-sponsored by Republicans John Hoeven of North Dakota and Bob Corker of Tennessee. Senate Democratic supported the amendment to placate Senate Republicans in an attempt to get as many “yes” votes as possible.

The Republican controlled House is expected to reject the Senate bill for a more conservative plan, as many House Republicans oppose the path to citizenship and regard the security measures in the Senate bill as being too weak.

Vela criticized the additional fencing, arguing that it would hamper trade between the new nations, waste tax dollars, split communities and negatively affect wildlife that crosses back and forth across the border. Vela’s criticism underscores the fragile basis on which immigration reform stands. With the Tea Party right already threatening mutiny on the GOP side if John Boehner advances a bill that they view as too weak and Vela and others on the progressive left raising concerns about the unnecessary border security provisions, the future of a bipartisan compromise in the House appears tenuous at best.

While a path to citizenship is essential for moving the nation forward, there is no compelling evidence that additional border fencing or more agents on the ground are needed. Adding these security measures are largely a political maneuver to maintain GOP support for the bill. However, such a compromise may not necessarily be sound policy. Congressional representatives who begin debating how to address illegal immigration should recognize and acknowledge Congressman Vela’s concerns. More border fencing and more Border Patrol agents may be needed to secure Republican votes in the House but they are not needed to secure the border. The increased militarization of the US-Mexico border is unnecessary. At the very least, we should be honest about that.

 

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