The Migrants’ Rights Network, a London-based advocacy organization, asked me to share my thoughts on the prospects for immigration law reform in light of last week’s elections. This is a follow-up to a pre-election essay I wrote for MRN.
Last week’s presidential election in the United States shifted our understanding of the nation’s electoral map. The burgeoning Latino population, driven by immigration and birth, which has been affecting election outcomes at the municipal and state level for years, finally tilted the presidential race. In a coalition of unprecedented strength, Latinos overwhelmingly joined forces with other communities of color—principally African Americans and Asian Americans—plus labor unions and liberal white voters to propel President Barack Obama to a second term and keep the Senate in Democratic hands. Having received the support of more than 70 percent of Latino voters, President Obama’s comment during the last weeks of the campaign that his reelection would come courtesy of Republican alienation of Latinos was nothing short of prescient.
The critical question now becomes whether President Obama and his Democratic colleagues will use their agenda-setting power to keep this important voting block in its wing or whether Republicans, newly chastised for vilifying immigrants, will alter their course to embrace a growing constituency that values immigrants and is willing to take to the polls to show their distaste for politicians who don’t. Leaders of the two major parties have indicated a newfound willingness to tackle this topic despite repeated failed attempts going back to the days just before September 11, 2001 when then-President George W. Bush and the Mexican president at the time Vicente Fox seemed on the verge of an agreement. Within days of this month’s election, Charles Schumer, the influential Democratic senator from New York, and Lindsey Graham, his Republican counterpart from South Carolina, announced their renewed commitment to immigration reform. Meanwhile, John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, reportedly said that comprehensive immigration reform is overdue.
There is plenty of reason for immigration watchers to tread carefully through the political storm that’s already brewing about how to move forward with immigration law reform. The election results may have sent a shockwave through the Republican Party and been cause for celebration in Democratic Party offices, but it hasn’t changed legislators’ rhetorical starting point. The Democratic Schumer and Republicans Boehner and Graham have all repeated the pre-campaign focus on securitization. In particular, on a national television news program, Schumer stressed the need to “close the border.” If these are the words of the Democrats who kept control of the Senate thanks to Latinos who care deeply about enacting humane immigration laws, then the prospects are dim.
Calls such as Schumer’s for greater securitization imply that the border is a chaotic mess. Nothing could be further from the truth. Crime statistics from the nation’s premier law enforcement agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, clearly indicate that some of the nation’s safest metropolitan areas are located along the border with México. My hometown, for example, McAllen, a city of 133,000 residents, saw 246 violent crimes in 2011, while El Paso—its population of 663,000 making it the largest Texas border city—experienced 2,858 violent crimes. Meanwhile, two cities in Ohio, where I work, that have similar numbers of people—Dayton (population 142,0000) and Columbus (population 787,000)—suffered from 1,355 and 5,185 violent crimes, respectively.
All the while, communities along the border have been subjected to an ever-larger presence of myriad security forces. The federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the agency responsible for both repelling terrorists and managing migration, has boosted the number of border guards from 4,139 in fiscal year 1992, to 10,045 in FY 2002, to 21,444 at the end of the 2011 fiscal year. Most of these—approximately 18,000 in FY 2011—are stationed along the U.S. border with México, a prioritization justified by President Bush’s homeland security chief, Asa Hutchinson, who explained that “[t]he best border security on the northern border is the grandmother who has lived in her house on the border for seventy years. She sits in her home and watches the border and calls border patrol when she sees something suspicious” (Asa Hutchinson, Keynote Address, 59 Administrative Law Review 533, 541 (2007)).
While grandmothers stare into Canada, border communities along the southwest have had to accommodate a fixation with steel and concrete fences that have sprung up in recent years at a cost of billions of dollars and with seemingly no regard to the commercial and personal ties that have propelled the region for longer than it has been divided by a political boundary. The 2006 Secure Fence Act demanded that DHS build almost 700 miles of wall, and, while it hasn’t reached that goal, it has erected a fortification never before seen between friendly nations. As the sociologist Robert Lee Maril put it, “Stretching for miles as far as the eye can see in either direction, this completed hydraulic wall appears not only monumental in size, but also impenetrable” (Robert Lee Maril, The Fence 245 (2011)). Another project, an attempt to create a high-tech “virtual” fence, failed due to technological problems, but not before the Boeing Corporation received a $1.1 billion payment.
Though the price tag is high, the cost in human lives is more significant. An estimated 2,466 migrants have died since 2000 as they trekked into the forbidding desert to avoid the vast number of agents and fencing that surround traditional migratory routes, according to the Arizona Recovered Human Remains Project. At the same time, law enforcement officials occasionally mete out misguided justice at the end of a rifle: news reports indicate that in October Texas state police officers mistakenly took Guatemalan immigrants hiding under a blanket in the back of a pickup truck to be a load of drugs. One officer, following departmental policy, opened fire preemptively, presumably in an attempt to deflate a tire. Instead, three immigrants were shot and two died. The truck contained no drugs and no one shot at the officers. All this happened in a region of 1 million people and not too far, police officials said, from three schools.
To claim, then, that the border is not secure, that it is, instead, in need of “closing,” is to seriously misunderstand the border or to privilege securitization over common sense and human dignity. Immigration law reform doesn’t need to wait until the border is secure. The border has been secure for decades. It is just as good a place to live as when I was growing up there, and far safer than metropolitan areas throughout the nation’s interior. The border security clamor, whether from Democrats or Republicans, rings of nothing more than pandering to restrictionists who don’t like the changing face of the United States, but suddenly realize their electoral hopes can’t come to fruition without moderating their tone. To start the newly reinvigorated debate about immigration law reform by implying that the border is not secure is inaccurate and likely to lead to many more billions of dollars thrown into policing Latino communities on the border and elsewhere with the end result being that the record-number of deportations that characterized President Obama’s first term (and about which I wrote in a previous contribution to MRN’s Migration Pulse) will eventually seem tame, countless families will be torn apart, and unknown numbers of lives lost.
[The original version of this essay appeared in MRN’s Migration Pulse blog on November 12, 2012.]