I spent two days with the U.S. Border Patrol in 1994 for a series of stories on California’s immigration problems. Much time has passed, but I’m sure the fundamentals of what I saw remain true.
Illegal immigrants would gather at dusk on the Mexican side of the border. Back then, the fencing was makeshift and had some gaps, but those wishing to cross didn’t dare climb over until it was dark. Amid the diminishing light, Border Patrol agents eyed the future crossers across the fence and vice versa — sometimes the view was obscured by the curling smoke from makeshift hibachis cooking one last meal. Everyone knew darkness would set a desperate race in motion.
At nightfall, the chase began. Technology is much better now, but what I remember was not the chase — sometimes successful, sometimes futile — but the poignant human drama of each move to the fence and over.
As agents explained to me, the border crossers knew nothing of what lay ahead. Once their feet hit the American side, they would have to do the following: run through the blackness over terrain they’ve never seen before, navigating bushes and small gullies without so much as a flashlight, running in panic a distance of at least a mile — longer if they get lost. If they make it to the highway (Interstate 5, in this case), they have to find a car or van they have never seen before (only heard described) driven by someone they’ve never met before. They then climb in, sitting with people they don’t know heading to a place they’ve never seen. If they arrive safely, they live in a house with many others, hoping upon hope that they find work.
On the two nights I rode with Border Patrol agents, some crossers made it — becoming instant and daring criminals.
Others were captured. Some immediately burst into tears. Others practically hyperventilated with fear and anxiety. Still others walked grimly with the agents, certain they would soon try again.
This is the crime. What is the punishment? The Senate will grapple with many other issues, but the essence of this debate is the nature of this crime and the proper rendering of justice — justice for those who crossed illegally and those who are waiting legally in line.
Politics has thrust the need to address immigration reform to the top of the White House and congressional agenda. America is different now than it was in 2007, the last time Congress engaged in a serious debate over immigration reform.
Latinos constituted 8 percent of the 2006 electorate; Democrats won their vote, 69 percent to 30 percent. In 2008, the Latino vote was 9 percent, and Democrats won it, 67 percent to 31 percent. In 2012, Latinos represented 10 percent of the electorate, and Democrats won them, 71 percent to 27 percent.
The trend lines are unmistakable. The Latino vote is growing and moving toward the Democrats. The Electoral College implications are potentially transformative, and Republicans know it. They can’t compete in Colorado, New Mexico, or Nevada (20 electoral votes combined) without more support from Latinos. If current trends continue, Republicans could lose their grip on Arizona and Texas. Subtract those 49 electoral votes (Arizona’s 11 and Texas’s 38), and the GOP becomes little more than a presidential curiosity. Republicans are not currently at risk of losing Arizona or Texas and might even misread the numbers and believe they are safe.
Mitt Romney won Arizona by 9 percentage points and Texas by nearly 16 points. He matched McCain’s 2008 margin in Arizona with almost exactly the same turnout. Romney’s Texas victory was just shy of 5 points better than McCain’s in 2008, in a contest that saw the Republican candidate’s vote jump by about 100,000 and Obama’s fall by more than 200,000.
But holding Arizona and Texas is purely defensive, and from now on Democrats will register voters there in ways they did in mountain West states they now pretty much own. Democrats see great potential for newly registered voters, especially in Texas. That’s why former Dallas mayor and outgoing U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told the Dallas Morning News, "When Texas turns blue, the country’s going to turn blue, and it’s going to stay blue."
Few things are more intoxicating than preemptive triumphalism. But Democrats see possibilities in Texas and Arizona. Republicans sense peril. These are the political fault lines beneath the immigration debate.
But politics is only one part of this equation. Almost all of the political math is on the chalkboard. But the gritty details of a big immigration bill remain invisible. Let me offer a couple of sobering statistics: The ballyhooed "Group of Eight" Senate immigration compromise is five pages long. The 2007 immigration-reform bill (S. 1348) ran 790 pages. The Senate bipartisan framework devotes less than one and a half pages to border security. The 2007 bill contained 85 pages on the topic.
Details always matter but rarely more than in immigration reform. The work is painstaking, and each section (the 2007 bill had 832 of them) deals with the underlying human dimension of immigration, labor, crime, enforcement, justice — as well as the global gravitational pull of living legally in America and, the lodestar of all, becoming a citizen.
Fundamental to all of these issues is the question of criminality. What is the nature of this crime? Who was wronged? What was taken? What is just?
America couldn’t find the answers in 790 pages of immigration reform in 2007. If it can’t find them in however many pages are eventually drafted this time, demographic changes and political trend lines will be revealed to be insufficient for the task. As they should be.
Immigration is about more than politics. It’s about humanity, our humanity. It’s about justice, our justice. It’s about our country and everything it represents to ourselves and the world.
This is deeper than politics. Much deeper.