Security is the watchword as the U.S. Senate takes up the heated debate over comprehensive immigration reform.
Republican lawmakers want to see more teeth in the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, the Senate bill that would spend at least $4.5 billion on additional border-security measures; give most of the 11 million people who are estimated to be living in the United State without proper documentation a chance to get on a path to citizenship; and open the door to more foreign guest workers for jobs ranging from farming to high-tech software development.
The security spending and the path to citizenship are tied to one another. Until the border is declared secure, the people now living in the shadows would be in a sort of legal limbo—able to work in the United States and even travel back and forth to their home countries, but unable to get a green card and get started on a lengthy process (for most, it would take more than a decade) to become a U.S. citizen.
The legislation made it through the Senate Judiciary Committee last month after more than 300 amendments were offered and more than 90 were adopted.
Before the bill cleared the committee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of the Gang of Eight senators who crafted the legislation, had been optimistic about the chances that the bill might draw considerable bipartisan support. At an April breakfast meeting hosted by The Christian Science Monitor, McCain called fellow Gang of Eight Sen. Chuck Schumer's goal of getting 70 votes for the legislation "very doable."
But last week, the forecast was more dire. Sen. Marco Rubio, another member of the Gang of Eight, told Fox News that the bill—at least in its current form—did not have the 60 votes it needs to pass the Senate. The Florida Republican later told a conservative radio host that he would vote against the bill himself if the border-security provisions were not ramped up.
Those border-security provisions are the key to setting most of the estimated 11 million undocumented U.S. residents on a path to citizenship. And the fight over just how secure the border needs to be could lead to the collapse of the bipartisan reform package in the coming weeks.
The Senate bill is likely the only major legislative effort that has a shot at becoming law—and demonstrating that it is actually possible for Congress to address a thorny issue.
The bill is sponsored by McCain, Rubio, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham on the GOP side; and New York Sen. Schumer, Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet on the Democratic side.
The Gang of Eight has crafted a legislative compromise that attempts to resolve four issues:
• Stopping the flow of people who illegally enter the country or overstay their visas;
• Resolving the status of the estimated 11 million people in the country without proper documentation;
• Revamping the visa system for people wishing to immigrate to the United States; and
• Creating a new guest-worker program that would allow businesses to take advantage of immigrant labor, while establishing new enforcement mechanisms to ensure that companies hire legal workers.
While the last two offer plenty of political fodder for chambers of commerce and unions, the first two create the biggest sparks between humanitarians on the left and border hawks on the right, while simultaneously exposing a split in the Republican Party about how to best court the growing Latino slice of the electorate.
The bill provides tons of money for more border security on top of the current spending—at least $4.5 billion and perhaps as much as $6 billion for more manpower, technology and fencing to stop and prosecute undocumented border crossers.
At the same time, it allows the majority of undocumented people who are now in the country to obtain legal status and eventually—provided certain border-security goals are met—get on a path to citizenship that would take a minimum of 13 years. (We'll skip the details for now; if you're interested, check out "Security and Citizenship," Page 16.)
The proposed security buildup troubles many on the left side of the political aisle, from humanitarian activists who see it as too much spending on militarization of the border to environmentalists who fret about new loopholes in environmental laws for damage from fencing and road-building.
Congressman Raul Grijalva notes that Southern Arizona has already seen a sharp increase in Border Patrol agents, National Guard assignments, new fencing and other steps to stem illegal border crossings.
That buildup of security has been attributed to a drop in the number of people attempting to enter the country illegally along the southern border. In its Tucson Sector, for example, the Border Patrol estimates that the number of people attempting to cross dropped from more than 627,000 in fiscal year 2006 to roughly 193,280 in fiscal year 2011. (The Border Patrol estimates that about 25,000 undocumented crossers, or about 13 percent of the total, slipped past them in 2011.)
But the current security buildup has had unintended consequences: More border crossers have turned to coyotes to help them across the border, empowering criminal gangs and drug cartels. And more people are attempting to cross more treacherous stretches of the desert and suffering horrible deaths there.
Just last week, the Binational Migration Institute released a report showing that while the number of people crossing has been on the decline, the number of bodies recovered has been consistent: Every year since 2005, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner has performed from 170 to 225 autopsies on remains recovered in Southern Arizona.
Report co-author Daniel E. Martínez, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at George Washington University, noted that "although unauthorized migration flows are near 20-year lows in the Tucson sector, the number of deaths has not decreased substantially, but rather has remained near peak highs in the region."
Despite that grim statistic, Grijalva said he is willing to accept the idea of more security apparatus along the border provided that people who are now living in the shadows get some kind of resolution to their legal status.
"I have some bitter things to swallow in there," Grijalva said. "But I've had sessions with folks who will be affected by this bill, from DREAM kids to working guys and moms. And I say, 'It's a long path, maybe 13 years. And then you still have to wait five years to get your citizenship. So it's 18 years.' And they say: 'Well, I've been here 11 years, living with this anxiety and fear. Fifteen years, 10 years, it doesn't matter to me, as long as I am legally protected and I have a chance to work and I can be with my family.' That's a huge motivation."
For all his reservations about the Gang of Eight's bill, Grijalva expects that whatever comes out of the Senate will be superior to legislation crafted by the GOP-led House of Representatives.
"What comes out of the House is going to be horrendous," Grijalva predicted. "At this point, I'd prefer that the House did nothing, and the template that comes over is the Senate template, and that (House Speaker John) Boehner has the political courage to give us an up-or-down vote."
The key to the deal at the heart of the Gang of Eight's legislation is a trigger mechanism: Before those now living in the shadows can become eligible to receive a green card and get on the path to citizenship, the Border Patrol must show it is apprehending or turning back at least 90 percent of the people trying to cross the border without proper documentation in high-risk sectors.
Already, some Republicans are grumbling that the metrics there are too lax. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, offered an amendment that would call for a much stiffer standard before anyone could become eligible for a green card, but it was rejected on Monday, June 10. There are also disputes over whether the Department of Homeland Security should have the responsibility of determining whether the goals have been met (as the bill now calls for) or whether Congress should vote to declare it secure.
A recent Government Accountability Office report sheds some light on how close the Border Patrol may be to achieving that 90 percent goal.
The GAO study shows that four of the nine Border Patrol sectors have already achieved the goal of 90 percent or better. Of the sectors that haven't achieved the goal, four are in Texas and the fifth is the Tucson Sector.
Agents in the Tucson Sector captured or turned back 87 percent of attempted border crossers, with an estimated 35,759 people slipping past law enforcement. In the Texas sectors, only two of the four have enough apprehensions to be consider "high-risk" sectors. The percentages there range from 84 percent in the Laredo Sector to 87 percent in the Del Rio Sector, according to the GAO study.
Tucson Sector Chief Manny Padilla said at a January town hall that the Tucson Sector's 87 percent "effectiveness rate" is based on estimates that the Border Patrol develops using a variety of sources, from conversations with ranchers to aerial surveillance to examining footprints along roads. But he concedes that the effectiveness rating is probably inflated because there are border crossers that elude detection.
"I would be not honest if I told you we know everything that crosses our border outside the ports of entry," Padilla said.
Congressman Ron Barber of Southern Arizona commissioned the study. Border security is one of the biggest problems in Barber's District 2, which includes Cochise County and a big chunk of the Tucson Sector.
"The people I represent are not safe in their homes in rural areas of Cochise County," Barber said. "We have to deal with it. I think it's fair to say that there have been improvements but the people I represent are still in danger."
Barber regularly meets with ranchers along the border, and asked for the GAO study on their behalf. Many ranchers are frustrated after years of seeing people cross their property. But they are also sometimes frustrated by the response—or lack of response—from the Border Patrol.
The GAO report concluded that—although spending has been ramped up on border security, fewer people are crossing and more are getting caught—the Border Patrol did not have sufficient metrics to determine which strategies were working and which were a waste of money.
Barber said he's willing to spend more on the Border Patrol as part of a reform package, but he's concerned that it's so hard to evaluate which strategies are the most effective.
"We don't have credible measurements," Barber said. "The ongoing problem with defining border security is made more problematic by the fact that the Border Patrol can't give us measurements that we can rely on."
Despite the increased manpower and the decrease in the number of undocumented border crossers, Republican lawmakers are calling for more security in the bill for a simple reason: The GOP base is complaining that the bill is too soft on border enforcement and too easy on undocumented people.
Last week, Gang of Eight member Rubio told Fox News that the bill did not have the necessary 60 votes to get out of the Senate because the security measures were not tough enough.
The Florida Republican later threatened to vote against the bill himself when he was asked by radio host Hugh Hewitt if he would support the legislation if it didn't include amendments that beefed up the security provisions.
"I think if those amendments don't pass, then I think we've got a bill that isn't going to become law, and I think we're wasting our time," Rubio said. "So the answer is no."
Flake said last week that he agreed that more border-security elements needed to be added to the legislation.
"I think we all know the bill still needs to be improved, which is the point Marco made," Flake told the Weekly via email. "We're working with members to strengthen the border security component specifically, which I think we can and should do."
Flake is taking plenty of heat from conservatives over his support for the bill. For most of his career in the House of Representatives, Flake was relatively liberal on the topic of immigration. He supported bipartisan legislation such as the DREAM Act and guest-worker programs along with efforts to increase border security.
But when he announced his plans to run for the U.S. Senate, Flake adopted a much more hard-line position.
"In the past I have supported a broad approach to immigration reform—increased border security coupled with a temporary worker program," Flake said in a statement on his website in March 2011. "I no longer do. I've been down that road, and it is a dead end. ... The political realities in Washington are such that a comprehensive solution is not possible, or even desirable given the current leadership. Border security must be addressed before other reforms are tackled."
But just months after winning the Senate seat, Flake was back to work on a comprehensive plan, angering conservatives who believe his tough talk was an election-year ploy.
After the immigration bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, radio host Laura Ingraham made a (likely hollow) threat to move to Arizona in order to run against Flake. She was angry that he voted against an amendment proposed by Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz that would have prevented previously undocumented residents on the path to citizenship from receiving welfare benefits.
"I will primary challenge Sen. Jeff Flake myself, if that's what this requires," Ingraham said on her show last month. "Jeff Flake, living up to his last name, backed down from a previous promise his spokeswoman made to Breitbart. ... Jeff Flake voted with the liberals against the Ted Cruz amendment."
This isn't the first time the GOP base has risen up to try to torpedo immigration reform. When George W. Bush tried to pass immigration reform in 2006, the backlash from the base was so severe that Bush—along with congressional leaders—walked away from the fight.
In the following years, the debate turned to getting tough on undocumented immigrants. The Obama administration tried to prove it was serious about securing the border by ramping up the Border Patrol and deporting 1.5 million people in the president's first term.
In Arizona, Republican lawmakers passed SB 1070, which became a symbol of the nation's battle against illegal immigration. During the presidential election, Mitt Romney praised the law as a model for the nation. His Republican rivals spent much of the primary denouncing the idea of "amnesty," saying they would ratchet up laws designed to make undocumented immigrants so uncomfortable that they would be forced to "self-deport." White House hopeful Herman Cain promised to build an electrified fence that would kill anyone trying to cross the border. (During a visit to Phoenix, Cain told the press he had been joking, but that any fence "might be electrified—I'm not walking away from that.")
The end result: Latinos voted in huge numbers against Romney in the presidential election. In 2004, George W. Bush got about 40 percent of the Latino vote. In 2012, Romney got only 27 percent.
At the same time, the percentage of Latinos in the electorate is growing. In 2008, Latino voters accounted for 7.4 percent of the vote. Last year, that jumped to 8.4 percent, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report, which also noted that many eligible Latino voters sat out the election and many younger Latinos will soon be old enough to vote—which means that Latino electorate was still punching below its weight in 2012.
Given those trends, many GOP strategists have argued that Republicans need to do a better job of reaching out to Latino voters. In March, an election autopsy by the Republican National Committee concluded that "among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, must be to embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only."
Last week, the College Republicans released its own analysis of what went wrong for the GOP in 2012. The report noted that in a January 2013 focus group, "the young 'winnable' Obama voters were asked to say what words came to mind when they heard 'Republican Party.' The responses were brutal: 'closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.'"
Karl Rove penned an op-ed last week for The Wall Street Journal that called immigration reform "a gateway issue: Many Hispanics won't be open to Republicans until it is resolved, which could take the rest of the year. But there is little doubt next week's Senate deliberations will shape for some time to come the Hispanic community's perceptions of the GOP."
But other GOP figures dismiss the idea that Republicans need to reach out to Latino voters. Last week, longtime Republican activist Phyllis Schlafly suggested that the Republican Party should instead try to reach out to more hard-core conservative white voters.
"The people the Republicans should reach out to are the white votes—the white voters who didn't vote in the last election," Schlafly said on the Family Focus radio show. "There are millions of them. I think when you have an establishment-run nomination system, they give us a series of losers, which they've given us with Dole, McCain, and Romney, and they give us people who don't connect with the grass roots."
Activists like Schlafly argue that providing Latinos with a path to citizenship—even a long one such as the decade-plus wait envisioned in the Senate immigration bill—will be a net loser for the Republican Party because Latinos are more likely to vote Democratic even if Republicans try to court them through immigration reform.
Former state lawmaker Frank Antenori, a hard-right Republican who lost his bid to represent a competitive central-Tucson district last year while championing SB 1070 (among other issues), said that allowing more Hispanics to become citizens—and voters—is a bad idea for Republicans because as things now stand, about 3 out of 4 Latinos vote for Democrats. He called that "losing math" for the GOP.
Antenori made the case that Latinos are more likely to vote Democratic because they "come from countries that have very socialist governments and they're pre-indoctrinated into the socialist mindset. Polling showed they were voting for Democrats because they like the sort of big-government, freebie, take-care-of-the-worker versus the evil-rich-guy mindset. ... They come from countries where they are downtrodden and they think that there's a class war and they are the have-nots battling the haves, and so they think the Democratic Party (is better) because it is going to do this equality thing like Hugo Chavez and all these guys. So that's who they vote for. It's the mindset. The data shows it."
Antenori's comments sound similar to the kind of rhetoric that the RNC's post-election autopsy warned against: "If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence."
It's also a sharp departure from the theory presented by McCain. Arizona's senior senator, who co-sponsored an earlier version of immigration reform in 2006 and then adopted a more hard-line approach as he sought the presidency in 2008 and re-election to the Senate in 2012, has bluntly said that reaching out to Hispanics is vital to the GOP's future.
"I'll give you a little straight talk," McCain said during a January appearance on ABC's This Week while discussing how he would persuade his fellow Republicans to stop talking about self-deportation and start talking about comprehensive reform. "Look at the last election. We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours, for a variety of reasons, and we've got to understand that."
McCain was a little more nuanced at the breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor, according to a BuzzFeed account.
"I believe if we pass this legislation, it won't gain us a single Hispanic vote, but what it will do is put us on a playing field where we can compete," McCain said. "Right now we can't compete."
Antenori suggested McCain is trying to re-establish his maverick bona fides, while Flake is working on behalf of his free-market allies in groups such as the Club for Growth. But Antenori conceded that "maybe I'm just a conspiracy guy."
Antenori sees himself as taking the long view rather than "pandering" to Latinos. He figures more Hispanics will start voting for the GOP ticket in a few generations, just as Italian-Americans like himself have come to embrace Republicans.
"We are wasting so much time and resources on the Hispanic demographic when they'll naturally come over in a few decades," Antenori said.
HOW THE IMMIGRATION BILL WORKS
Security and Citizenship
The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 is a complex bill; after the recent Senate Judiciary Committee markup, it expanded to more than 1,000 pages.
Here's a very basic look at how it would deal with the twin issues of resolving the status of undocumented people now in the country and securing the border. If you want more precise details, you'll find an outline of the legislation and other links at TucsonWeekly.com.
The bill provides lots of money for more border security. Within six months of its passage, the Department of Homeland Security would have to develop the "Comprehensive Southern Border Security Strategy," which has a budget of $3 billion for more manpower on the border; aerial drones; surveillance systems; new Border Patrol stations, forward operating bases and checkpoints; and so forth. (The funding is not just on the arrest side; the plan sets aside $50 million to allow prosecutions of illegal border crossers in the Tucson Sector to go from an average of 70 a day to 210 daily.)
Another $1.5 billion would be set aside for the "Southern Border Fencing Strategy," to add to fencing and vehicle barriers that now exist. (The fencing could be double-layer or even triple-layer in places.)
Once those plans have been submitted to Congress, undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States before Dec. 31, 2011, would be eligible to apply for a program to become a "Registered Provision Immigrant," or RPI. They would have to pass a background check, pay a $500 fine, applicable back taxes and fees associated with the program. Once they are in the RPI program, they could be legally hired and could travel outside the United States.
Here's where the trigger comes in: People in the RPI program would remain in a kind of legal limbo—safe from deportation and able to work but ineligible to apply for Lawful Permanent Resident status and be put on a long path to citizenship—until certain goals have been hit.
Those goals include substantially completing the new fence construction; putting a new employment verification system in place for all employers to prevent the hiring of unauthorized workers; creating a new electronic system to monitor visa and passport info from people leaving the United States; and ensuring the Border Patrol is apprehending or turning back at least 90 percent of the people trying to cross the border without proper documentation.
Once the 90 percent goal is reached, people who have been in the RPI program for at least 10 years would be eligible to apply for a green card and Lawful Permanent Residence. After another three years, they could apply for citizenship.
If the 90 percent goal isn't reached within five years, the bill calls for the creation of a new "Southern Border Security Commission" that would include border state governors and border security experts appointed by the White House and Congress. That new group would have the responsibility of coming up with a new plan—with another $2 billion in funding—to reach the 90 percent goal.