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Todd Staples: The TT Interview

The Texas agriculture commissioner on his book and campaign to highlight what he sees as a crisis on the border, his opinions on which immigration policies work and which don't, and why Americans shouldn't believe it when they are told the border is secure.

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In his new book, Broken Borders, Broken Promises, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples continues his admonishment of current border policies and advocates for a change in immigration and security measures. The book follows the launch of his website

Staples, who has announced his intention to run for lieutenant governor in 2014, sat down with The Texas Tribune to discuss his response to critics who say he is only pandering to the far right, what is wrong with current immigration policies and what he would do to fix them, the stories he hears from ranchers and farmers on the border, and why he disagrees with the notion that the border is secure.

The following is an abridged transcript of the interview:

TT: You mention HB 1403 [Texas’ in-state tuition legislation for undocumented immigrants that was passed in 2001] and say that it was passed “incorrectly,” that it wasn’t an immigration issue and it went to the education committee. In the debate now, most people think, “We have to so something about these kids.” Do you not agree?

Staples: I believe that we need to fix the whole system, and part of my proposal recognizes that children, through no fault of their own, were brought to this country. We want them to have the opportunity to live the American dream. But we can’t do it in an isolated manner like the president did because it only perpetuates the problem.

TT: During Gov. Rick Perry’s State of the State address, he didn’t say the words “immigration,” “border” or “Mexico,” and House Speaker Joe Straus has said we have more important issues [than dealing with immigration on the state level]. During our Texas Tribune Festival, Congressman Henry Cuellar said you were exaggerating about the conditions at the border to gain attention so you can seek higher office. How do you respond to that? And to the fact that the immigration fervor that seemed to peak two years ago isn’t still as loud?

Staples: I think the immigration fervor is there. It’s taken a national stage today, and the president and a bipartisan group of senators all have proposals. Obviously if I was just trying to seek political points, I would have taken the less controversial and more unified agreement on what needs to be done. But we have landowners that are being chased off their property, and we have a secretary of Homeland Security that just went to El Paso saying the border is secure.

TT: But there are some people within your party saying, “The border is in better shape.” It can always be better. Democrats also say it could be better. But there seems to be a shift in opinion that it’s better than it was. Do you not agree?

Staples: I agree that much has been done, but how can you say the border is safe when you have landowners who refuse to let their identity be seen for fear of retribution? How can you say it’s safe when you have piles of cash, almost $40 billion a year, going across the border? It’s just an unrealistic statement, and the American people are not naïve when this type of activity is occurring. DPS cameras are helping in aiding and in the apprehension of thousands of individuals and tons of narcotics, so we’re smarter than these statements are reflecting. I am not going to stop until landowners feel free to go back to their property.

TT: How many of these folks crossing the border illegally are drug mules or wielding AR-15s, and how many are the guys in the back of a pickup coming over here just trying to get a job?

Staples: That’s the whole point I get to in this book, what you just described. Flying in a helicopter in the middle of the night with DPS observing, they’re radioing to Border Patrol below and it dawned on me, we don’t know if they are going after an armed drug cartel member or someone who is looking for a job but also violated our country’s entry laws. So our border security could be greatly enhanced if we have a legal, workable, enforceable modern workforce and immigration system. That will greatly enhance border security and as a conservative, that is a much more efficient way to target the law enforcement we have to go after those drug cartel members. It’s easy when you first are introduced to this issue to say, “Deport those who are here illegally.” It’s hard to argue with that until you think that that’s our policy today. It’s not working; our policy is so inadequate on workforce supply issues that it’s causing a shadow economy that’s resulted in millions of people that are here today. So we can reform that and modernize it in a way that’s consistent with principles of orderly immigration and at the same time the net result is spring those assets for law enforcement.

TT: I know spending money in Texas is a thorny issue, but would you favor taking some money out of the Rainy Day Fund to help secure the border if the federal government, in your opinion, continues to fall short on the border?

Staples: I think that’s approaching it from the tail wagging the dog. We have to insist that Washington do its job, we have to force Washington to act, and I believe there is a growing consensus among conservatives of the realization that we need to unify behind a reasonable plan that protects the sovereignty of our country and protects and encourages legal immigration. We need to be pro legal immigration and not undermine that system. So I think people are growing toward a reasonable consensus, and I hope this book encourages that, and we force Washington to act.

TT: One of the current immigration proposals establishes a committee made up of border officials who would have some input on immigration reform. If you were on that committee and you were told it was up to you to deal with the 11 million people here illegally, what would your answer be?

Staples: We need to recognize our current policy today is deportation, and it’s not working. So let’s correct the status of those that are here and let’s assimilate them out of the shadow economy and into the legal workforce today that our economy is so dependent on and do it in a manner that doesn’t encourage future illegal immigration.

TT: Some people might interpret that as amnesty. Is that amnesty?

Staples: I believe what was done in 1986 [under President Ronald Reagan] was amnesty; I believe what the current president wants to do is amnesty. I believe what the president is proposing is two pathways to citizenship. I believe we have our legal immigration and assimilation and naturalization process. But I believe the president proposes an alternative pathway, and that is “get in the country any way you can, ignore our laws and in a couple of decades we’ll grant mass amnesty." I think that is the wrong approach, and that sends the wrong signal. I believe by saying we welcome everyone that wants to become an American citizen. Let’s not give up on what it means to be an American through this process.

TT: Do you believe that a lot of people who are here illegally don’t really want to be citizens, they just want a legal status to be able to work?

Staples: I think that is what the process was, and the system today doesn’t allow that to happen. That’s what I am hearing from individuals who want access to employment and work opportunities. If they want to become citizens, that process may need to be modernized as well. But we shouldn’t cut the legs out from underneath that approach by perpetuating problems of past amnesty.

TT: What’s the best way to install a guest-worker program?

Staples: You don’t use quotas; you use market-based demand. And what I mean by that is the H2B [temporary visa] for the seasonal worker is capped at 66,000. The H2A, the agricultural employment visa, is so cumbersome that many are not using it today. So the system has to be market-based, and it has to ebb and flow with the economic demand of the country and the needs of our country. I don’t think we need to eliminate the caps, but they should be market-based. American labor comes first; anyone who wants a job should have access to those jobs. But the lines aren’t forming, and no one is relocating for this entry-level work.

TT: Are these folks taking jobs from people who want to work, or are they filling jobs that no one here legally wants to do?

Staples: It’s a false presumption that people are being displaced. The testimony in Washington from a nursery and landscape company in Colorado and a golf course manager is they use the H2B. They post those jobs and people aren’t applying. And that’s the difficulty, and existing American jobs are being threatened because you don’t have a feasible workforce that you need. That’s a very important point. It’s crisis stage because the caps are so artificially low. If you can’t get the seasonal employees, you jeopardize the year-round jobs that depend on those. Be balanced, be fair because today the system is broken, it’s dilapidated and it’s not working and there’s evidence on top of evidence that proves that’s the case.

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