Why Border-State Gubernatorial Candidates Can’t Solve Their Voters’ Most Pressing Issue

Immigration is a hot-button issue, so border-state politicians talk a big game about it. There’s only one problem.

NOGALES, AZ - AUGUST 30: A group of apprehended illegal aliens walk to a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle after crossing into the U.S. August 30, 2005 in Nogales, Arizona. The governors of New Mexico and Arizona have declared a state of emergency along the border due to drug trafficking, illegal immigration and terrorism. 
National Journal
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
July 20, 2014, 5:10 p.m.

Ari­zona state Treas­urer Doug Ducey is run­ning for gov­ernor, and he’s prom­ising to fix the im­mig­ra­tion crisis by put­ting more “fen­cing, satel­lite, guards­men, more po­lice and pro­sec­utors” on the bor­der. GOP rival Christine Jones vows to do him one bet­ter: She says she’ll send “1,200 troops to the bor­der, use tech­no­logy to mon­it­or who’s com­ing and go­ing, fin­ish the fence, and send Obama the bill.”

It all makes per­fectly good sense: Im­mig­ra­tion is a hot-but­ton is­sue, so can­did­ates — es­pe­cially in bor­der states — are go­ing to want to talk about it.

The catch: There’s just not much they can ac­tu­ally do about it.

Im­mig­ra­tion is the province of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, not the states. That’s de­term­ined by the Con­sti­tu­tion and con­firmed by re­cent Su­preme Court rul­ings, in­clud­ing one that struck down sig­ni­fic­ant parts of Ari­zona’s con­tro­ver­sial 2010 im­mig­ra­tion law.

Gov­ernors can sign le­gis­la­tion that al­lows or denies un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants ac­cess to in-state tu­ition to pub­lic uni­versit­ies or driver’s and busi­ness li­censes, pop­u­lar op­tions for in­cum­bents. They can try to sue the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to re­coup im­mig­ra­tion-re­lated costs, but the courts re­jec­ted a 1994 at­tempt by Texas, Cali­for­nia, Ari­zona, and Flor­ida to do that.

And gov­ernors have some con­trol over the loc­al Na­tion­al Guard, but fed­er­al law — in­clud­ing laws that for­bid mil­it­ary per­son­nel from per­form­ing civil law en­force­ment — pre­vent the Guard from do­ing more than sup­port­ing fed­er­al bor­der-con­trol ef­forts, ac­cord­ing to im­mig­ra­tion-law ex­perts.

So for all the bold talk, all gov­ernors can really do is beg, plead, and work with Wash­ing­ton in the hopes of get­ting the kinds of re­sponses they want.

“That’s pretty fun­da­ment­al,” said former Ari­zona At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Terry God­dard, a Demo­crat who ran for gov­ernor in 2010. “That’s Found­ing Fath­ers work.”

At least some Re­pub­lic­ans agree. The leg­al frame­work lim­its gov­ernors — and those who want to be gov­ernor — to “cri­ti­ciz­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment,” said Re­pub­lic­an strategist Matt Mack­owiak, who used to be press sec­ret­ary for former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchis­on of Texas.

That’s worked polit­ic­ally for many gov­ernors and can­did­ates. Govs. Jan Brew­er of Ari­zona and Rick Perry of Texas have raised their na­tion­al pro­files dur­ing im­mig­ra­tion crises. New Mex­ico Gov. Susana Mar­tinez, as she runs for reelec­tion, has called Wash­ing­ton’s im­mig­ra­tion policy “a fail­ure of lead­er­ship.”

Texas Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al nom­in­ee Wendy Dav­is and her pre­sumptive coun­ter­part in Ari­zona, Fred DuVal, use the im­mig­ra­tion is­sue to sep­ar­ate them­selves from the na­tion­al party. Dav­is cri­ti­cized Obama for not vis­it­ing the bor­der per­son­ally and has called for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to cov­er bor­der-re­lated ex­penses Texas is in­cur­ring right now. DuVal blamed both the White House and Con­gress for “the lack of fed­er­al solu­tions” in an in­ter­view.

But on the cur­rent crisis, gov­ernors and can­did­ates can’t really do much more than call for fed­er­al ac­tion. Smith, Dav­is, and Cali­for­nia Re­pub­lic­an Neel Kashkari are all ask­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to in­crease the rate of de­port­a­tion.

“What is a state go­ing to do?” said Bill Mc­Cam­ley, a Demo­crat­ic state le­gis­lat­or rep­res­ent­ing a stretch of New Mex­ico’s south­ern bor­der. “We can talk about im­port­ant but re­l­at­ively minor things like driver’s li­censes. But in gen­er­al, it’s go­ing to be up to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.”

Mesa May­or Scott Smith, an­oth­er Re­pub­lic­an run­ning for gov­ernor in Ari­zona, said that the can­did­ates mak­ing big prom­ises about im­mig­ra­tion are guilty of “empty rhet­or­ic.” In one Web video, Smith’s cam­paign plays back Ducey’s prom­ises and then asks, “And the gov­ernor con­trols how many satel­lites?”

Smith says there’s an ab­surdity to cam­paign­ing, and that it “has not played out any great­er than in im­mig­ra­tion. Can­did­ates pan­der­ing to the crowd, throw­ing red meat, and not of­fer­ing a real solu­tion. The un­for­tu­nate thing is that some­times that works.”

Asked if Ducey’s plan for im­mig­ra­tion is ac­tu­ally leg­al, a spokes­man for his cam­paign said via Twit­ter that Ari­zon­ans are “tired of be­ing Obama’s doormat” and that, if elec­ted, Ducey would “use every tool that is leg­ally avail­able to him.”

Like­wise, Jones said that Ari­zon­ans want as­sur­ance that something — any­thing — will be done about im­mig­ra­tion.

“People want to shoot holes in this thing,” Jones said. “They want to talk about wheth­er we can use the Na­tion­al Guard, they want to talk about wheth­er the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s go­ing to re­im­burse us.”¦ We just need to get something done.”

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