Some Thoughts on the Senate Border Deal

This fall when the President signs a new immigration bill into law in a beautiful Rose Garden ceremony we may look back on the border deal announced yesterday as the savvy compromise which paved the way.   I hope that is the case.  But I am not convinced that what happened yesterday was strategically advantageous for the cause of reform.   While the Democrats received nothing new in the “deal,” the Republicans achieved something very significant – they got the Democrats to buy into one of the big lies of the anti-reform movement, a big lie which is now part of the bill and will be part of the life of the nation for years to come.

I refer to the idea that the border is so unsafe that we would need to put as many armed troops on it as we have on the North Korean border today.  As I have written elsewhere, the US Mexican border is if anything a remarkable success story, far safer and better managed today than it has been in years.  Violent crime is one third of what it was a decade ago in the largest border cities; the flow of unauthorized migrants is a quarter of what it was a decade ago; meanwhile trade with Mexico will have doubled in just the past four years, turning Mexico in our third largest trading partner and second most common destination for American exports.   While troubles remain, the governments of two countries along with many local partners has made the border far safer than it was a decade ago, while dramatically expanding the flow of trade through the 47 ports of entry along the border itself. 

Some have described the border strategy agreed to yesterday as a “surge.” But what exactly is our government going to surge against? Net flow of unauthorized migrants between our two counties is now zero, and the CBO said the border provisions in the Senate bill pre-surge would drop that number even further.   The Wall Street Journal reports today on another reason the flow is not what it was – Mexico is growing, modernizing and producing far more jobs for its people than it did during previous decades.  Border cities are already are among the safest in the country, net flow is zero, we are close to the goal of a 90% apprenhension rate in 4 of the 5 high traffic corridors, the average patrol border patrol agent has seen their annual apprenhension rate drop from 300 to just 17, or one every three weeks...so why a "surge?"

In my work along the border these last three years I have heard regional leader after leader tell the same story – the exaggeration of the violence along the border by conservative politicians has brought great economic harm to the region.  Tourism has dropped off, investments end up in other places.   It was this economic threat that caused the business community in Arizona, for example, to recall from office the sitting state Senate Majority Leader and architect of the virulent anti-immigrant “SB1070 style politics of recent years.   These communities, among the safest in the whole nation now, are desperate to move beyond this perception which has done so much harm to their economies.  What these leaders want more than anything else is more investment on border infrastructure and customs agents, something that will create more jobs on both sides of the border and modernize our ports staining under the explosion of trade with Mexico we've seen in recent years. 

But this new compromise, crafted by three Senators not from the border region, institutionalizes the big conservative lie about the US-Mexican border.   We have now accepted as fact and policy that the threat posed by the US-Mexican border requires a response similar to what we did in Afghanistan and Iraq, and equal to what we are doing today to defend against North Korea.   It is all out of proportion to what is actually happening in the border region today.   Remember, the Senate bill, which passed out of Judiciary Committee with broad bi-partisan support, a bill which has been characterized as the toughest border bill even written, called for no new border patrol agents.  Not a single one. 

Consider these statements by John McCain in the last several weeks:

“I have been on the border in Arizona for the last 30 years, to somehow say there have not been significant advancements in border security defies the facts.” 

“The fact is that we can get this border secured, and the answer, my friends, as is proposed in the Cornyn amendment, that we hire 10,000 more border patrol is not a recognition of what we really need,” McCain said. “What we really need is technology.”

At a strategic level, the wall of reasonableness erected by the Gang of Eight to keep the crazy politics of the anti-immigrant right out of the Congressional immigration reform legislative process was breached yesterday.  The timing of this breach of course is unfortunate, for the next step in this process is to move the bill to the House, where anti-immigrant forces are much stronger, and their ideas much crazier.   This “deal” accepted by the Senate Democrats established a precedent of accepting crazy conservative ideas in this tough debate, one which the other side is surely going to exploit in the weeks to come. 

As someone who has fought for immigration reform for eight years now, I hope I am wrong.  I hope the border deal will in fact be the moment which enabled us to get this deal done.  But where I sit, today, I am not convinced it was worth it.  And I know the tens of millions of Americanswho live in the border region, tired of the mis-characterization of their communities and proud of the hard progress which has been made in recent years, share my concern. 

Updates: Some good analyses on the border proposals have come out in the past few days.  See this Economist article, "Secure Enough: Spending Billions More on Fences an Drones Wil Do More Harm Than Good." Also see this excellent piece from Bob Ortega of the Arizona Republic, this one from the Los Angeles Times and this one from Josh Gerstein at Politico.

Update: In an Op-Ed I wrote in the Hill on Wednesday, i argued that if more money were to spent on the border it should be for border infrastructure, which would help create more jobs on both sides of the US-Mexican border.