On the morning of June 28, 2007, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff huddled off the Senate floor with a handful of congressional aidesand lobbyists. They were waiting for the Senate to vote on a sweeping immigration bill that they had spent much of the year negotiating with Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who had led a bipartisan coalition of senators sponsoring the measure.
Even before the midmorning voting began, it was clear from a desperate floor speech by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that the bill would die. President Bush had been placing phone calls to lawmakers all morning begging for their support. A longtime Kennedy immigration aide was in tears.
The vote on the bill was 46-53, 14 votes shy of the 60 needed to advance it.
That was the last opportunity, perhaps for years to come, for any broad overhaul of the immigration system to make it through Congress. The bill was far from perfect, as Kennedy repeatedly acknowledged, but he pleaded with people to give it a chance. In the end, the measure’s “grand bargain” to create a temporary-worker program and a merit-based point system for awarding green cards; crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers; and provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States was too radical to win over reluctant lawmakers.
If it was radical then, it is inconceivable now. Even though President Obama supports a comprehensive approach similar to the immigration bill that Kennedy and Bush championed, the political reality in Congress is that only measures dealing with enforcement have a chance to pass. Even minor legislative changes involving work visas and green-card allotments appear to be off the table.
As with every other policy discussion these days, much of the debate over enforcement focuses on money and the proper role of the federal government. Lawmakers are considering a new requirement for employers to electronically verify that their workers are in the country legally. The Obama administration is asking Congress to ease the standards for charging employers with felonies if they hire illegal workers. Immigrant-advocacy and civil-rights groups, the ones who pushed hardest for a path to citizenship, are pressing DHS to scale back detention and deportation policies that they view as too harsh. Members of Congress are debating how many Border Patrol agents are needed.
The White House, aware that any hopes for comprehensive reform depend on convincing skeptics that the administration is doing all it can to enforce existing laws, touts its record. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano cites the highest level of criminal deportations in history and a sharp increase in workplace audits to ferret out illegal immigrants. “What we have been doing is unprecedented in terms of the actual enforcement lay-down at the border,” she told National Journal. “It’s never been more extensive, and the president intends to sustain that.” But Republican critics, such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas, accuse the administration of paying lip service to crackdowns. “They clearly don’t want to enforce immigration laws,” he charged in an interview.
Against that political backdrop, the upcoming debates over immigration enforcement are almost certain to be contentious. What follows is a look at the state of play with major components of the issue, both in terms of current activity and proposals for change.
MUSCLE AT THE BORDER
Homeland Security has made the most headway in combating illegal immigration by bolstering forces at the border between the United States and Mexico. About one-fourth of the U.S. Customs and Enforcement’s officers are now deployed along the Southwest border, and they are helped by 1,200 National Guard troops. The number of Border Patrol officers has doubled over the past 10 years to about 20,700. If Conress approves the funding, there could be 21,370 by the end of the year.
The big increase in Border Patrol agents began in the Bush administration. After the immigration bill collapsed, the White House hastened to respond to critics who hammered the government for being lax on enforcement. The naysayers’ critique of Bush and Kennedy’s comprehensive bill went something like this: How can we trust you with a new, voluminous immigration system that would legalize millions of aliens when you have botched the current setup so completely?
It would become the White House’s mission to prove those critics wrong. In February 2008, Chertoff promised that the number of Border Patrol agents would exceed 20,000 by the end of the year, more than twice as many as when Bush took office. That force remains in place today.
Unmanned aircraft cover the border from California to Texas, supplemented by mobile surveillance units and thermal-imaging systems to detect illegal crossings. Earlier this year, DHS canceled an expensive, high-tech plan to create an “electronic fence” using a series of fixed sensor towers. Napolitano said that the program wasn’t cost-effective because it wouldn’t work across all terrains. The department is now using the same technologies but tailoring them to fit the topographies and population densities of each region.
This article appears in the March 26, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.