Federal spending on border security is at a historic high. Illegal crossings are at a 40-year low. Deportations reached record numbers in President Barack Obama’s first term. Let’s get on with the business of fixing the rest of our dysfunctional immigration system.
We’re talking to you, Sen. Mark Kirk.
Last week, the U.S. Senate began debating an immigration bill, the product of months of negotiations by the Gang of Eight, a group of four Republicans and four Democrats who are serious about getting this done.
The bill’s authors haven’t declared victory in the effort to seal the border. Their measure contains up to $6.5 billion for more agents, more fencing and more surveillance equipment, including drones.
Much of that wouldn’t be necessary, frankly, if lawmakers worried more about letting workers into the country legally instead of keeping them out. That means overhauling the visa system so American businesses can hire the workers they need. It means dealing with the 11 million immigrants who came here without permission to fill jobs for which there were no available visas.
Those problems were put on hold in 2006 when Congress rejected then-President George W. Bush’s call for comprehensive immigration reform. Lock down the border first, they insisted. So the feds built more than 650 miles of fence along the Mexican border, installed 300 radar towers, hired tens of thousands of border agents, deployed 10 drones at a cost of $18 million each, and on and on.
Last year the U.S. spent more than $17 billion on border enforcement. That’s more than it spent on the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, ATF and U.S. Marshals Service combined, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. Arrests fell from 1.1 million in 2005 to 365,000 in 2012.
Some of that decrease can be attributed to a poor economy here and a better job market in Mexico. But a rebounding U.S. economy will increase our need for legal workers. It’s time to deal with the whole problem instead of insisting that the border must be airtight first.
The Gang of Eight proposal would update the visa system to reflect the changing needs of American businesses. It would provide separate, flexible allocations for high-tech, white collar and low-skill workers, with an additional program for agricultural guest workers. The increase in visas would come at the expense of current programs that favor relatives of immigrants already here.
The bill would require employers to use an electronic screening system to verify the immigration status of new hires. And it calls for a system to monitor exits by sea or air, targeting people who arrive on valid visas and remain after they’ve expired. (Roughly 40 percent of those who are here illegally got here that way — not by jumping the border.)
The lightning rod in the debate is a plan to allow many of the 11 million who are here without permission to stay and work legally, granting them a provisional status that could lead to citizenship. That path, as the president noted this week, is “no cakewalk.” They’d have to learn English, pay a fine and back taxes and demonstrate that they won’t be a burden on taxpayers.
The bill sets border security benchmarks that must be met to open each step along that path. It would likely be 10 years before those here illegally could apply for legal residency, or “green cards,” and at least 13 before they’d qualify for citizenship.
Opponents have offered amendments that would set those benchmarks higher — so high, the bill’s supporters say, that the path to citizenship would be out of reach.
The full Senate already has rejected one amendment that would have withheld provisional status — leaving the 11 million living in the shadows — until the entire border is under surveillance. That could take 10 years or more.
Kirk was one of 15 senators who voted against bringing the bill to the floor for debate at all. He’s still stuck on the “enforcement first” model, and he’s apparently not impressed with the falling numbers.
He says he likes a plan outlined by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. That amendment would raise the bar that must be met before immigrants can apply for green cards. The bill’s supporters say Cornyn’s targets are unreasonable and prohibitively expensive. The amendment calls for an additional 6,500 border personnel, for example, without additional funding. And the electronic entry/exit system would be replaced by a biometric system that could cost $25 billion and take decades to complete, according to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Gang of Eight.
The bill’s supporters say the changes suggested by Cornyn and others are meant to kill the bill, not make it better — ya think? — but they insist they’re open to improving the border security elements.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the conservative point man on the Gang of Eight, has said he won’t vote for the bill he helped draft unless the enforcement provisions are stronger. He’s trying to broker a compromise. Step one: Get Kirk and others to let go of the idea that until the border is fixed, everything else has to stay broken.
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