In a repeat of national immigration debates in 2006, hard-line partisanship now coursing through Congress and the upcoming mid-term elections leave precious little room for compromise, raising the specter that reform efforts will again produce more noise than results.
Just as in 2006, some Democrats are clamoring for immigration reforms, including easing pathways to citizenship, while Republicans are insisting that more security on the border must come first. Policy experts, meanwhile, say the outcome for immigration changes this year will likely be the same as back then: nothing. “I don’t see productive discussions on immigration this year,” said John Skrentny, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
A group of mostly Republican congressmen — including 10 Texans — sent President Obama a letter Wednesday urging him to put armed National Guard troops on the border. “Border Patrol and local law enforcement on the border are out-manned, out-gunned and out-financed,” said U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Houston. And on Wednesday, the state's U.S. senators, Republicans John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, filed legislation that would send millions more federal dollars to the border for law enforcement. The moves come as some Democratic lawmakers try to ratchet up the timeline for immigration reform proposals on the heels of Arizona’s passage of the most severe immigration bill in the nation. “For too long, this issue has been put on the back burner,” said U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes. “We cannot stand by and allow our country to go down the path that Arizona has.”
Wednesday's GOP letter echoed the party’s oft-repeated theme of four years ago, when Democrats and some Republicans last worked on a comprehensive measure to change U.S. immigration laws. In their successful campaign to stop reforms backed by Democrats in favor of beefed up security on the southern border, GOP lawmakers held politically charged hearings across the nation that featured U.S. Border Patrol agents, border sheriffs and others who described the border as a lawless place where hordes of armed drug smugglers sprayed bullets across the countryside. Republicans also argued that millions of undocumented immigrants were a drain on the nation's social services.
The measures that eventually passed only dealt with security, resulting in construction of the 700-mile border fence, the hiring of thousands more Border Patrol agents and the attempted implementation of multi-billion-dollar high tech “virtual fence” project that was recently halted after years of hiccups. Now advocates are attempting to revive many of the immigration measures that failed in 2006. Obama promised during and after his presidential campaign to address the issue, and those urging him to act say that changes are even more critical since Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law the most restrictive immigration legislation in recent history. The new law makes it a crime for immigrants not to carry immigration documents and gives police authority to detain those they suspect are in the country illegally, raising concerns about racial profiling. Democrats and immigration advocates worry other states will follow in Arizona’s footsteps, and Texas is poised to do just that. Already, state Reps. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, and Debbie Riddle, R-Houston, have promised to file measures identical to the Arizona law during the 2011 legislative session. “We absolutely need immigration reform, or [we] risk having a nation with 50 different immigration policies and standards,” said Luis Figueroa, legislative council for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
But Figueroa and other advocates probably shouldn’t expect federal immigration changes before 2011, experts said. Skrentny said the long-running debate over whether border security should precede more immigration changes stems from the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. That measure allowed thousands of Mexican nationals in the country illegally to obtain citizenship but didn’t provide much additional border security — a "laughable failure," he said: For the hundreds of thousands who continued to illegally cross into the U.S. in the 1990s, knowing someone who received amnesty was a major factor in their decision to move north. Lawmakers “cannot do another amnesty or pathway to citizenship … without securing the borders first, because they don’t believe the American people will support that,” Skrentny said.
A glimmer of hope for immigration reform advocates, however, may lie in public skepticism over what more can be done to secure the border following the comprehensive and costly efforts that have come since 2006, said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University School of Law. The federal government has already spent billions on the fence, on adding thousands of Border Patrol agents and and on trying to install cameras and technical equipment along the border to track down scofflaws. “That’s the difference,” Chishti said. “People are beginning to say, 'Really, what else is there to be done?'” And more people are beginning to support improved immigration enforcement at workplaces to prevent employers from hiring undocumented workers, he said.
But even if much of the partisan bickering were to quiet down, Chishti said, there simply aren’t enough days on the congressional calendar to get a comprehensive immigration bill passed this year. “There just won’t be enough time to take this on in a big way.”