Enforcement is still the primary issue in the immigration reform debate, as it should be.
In the debates over the 2006 and 2007 amnesty proposals, there was one question amnesty proponents in Congress had a hard time answering: Why should we trust the administration to enforce a border-security agreement if no one has bothered to enforce the terms of the 1986 amnesty agreement? Does anyone think this should be less of an issue under the even more brazen anti-enforcement policies of the Obama administration?
The provisions of any “grand bargain” compromise on immigration reform are no more important than a credible plan for full and competent enforcement. The nation cannot afford another “wink-wink” deal that is a transparent sellout of border security.
Of course, there are those on both sides of the issue who think a debate on enforcement provisions is pointless. Those who distrust all enforcement promises can join hands with those who will promise anything, knowing enforcement will be abandoned once the ink is dry on the legislation. Why bother to haggle if the outcome will be meaningless three years down the road?
Let’s take the example of the Dream Act provisions being implemented by the Obama administration by executive decree. Does anyone believe any applicant will be refused the benefits of the program as described in the original Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo allowing wholesale “prosecutorial discretion”? Does anyone believe attempted fraud in the application process will be prosecuted? Already, in the first year of the program, the U.S. Border Patrol has been releasing young people apprehended on the border solely on the basis that they might qualify for amnesty.
No serious observer expects any honest effort by DHS to adhere to the announced terms of the program. How will the next amnesty be different? If the goal is to evade the enforcement of current law for “humanitarian reasons,” you cannot climb back up that slippery slope.
In this atmosphere of bipartisan delusions and policy by wishful thinking about immigration law, questions about enforcement become not a minor detail but the central issue in any immigration reform “deal.” In any context or on any issue, a genuine deal rests on good faith and confidence that the terms of the deal will be implemented. This necessary level of confidence is lacking in the immigration debate.
The way to overcome this mistrust and move forward to an honest and productive debate on reform of immigration law is first to demonstrate that we have achieved border security — a goal supported by more than 80 percent of Americans. Adopting a new amnesty program for any group of illegal immigrants without first demonstrating genuine border security is an open, cynical invitation for the continuation of unacceptable levels of illegal border crossings.
The Obama administration’s claim that the southwestern border “is as secure now as it has ever been” is not a statement that meets the demand for genuine border security. The southwestern border has never been secure, and it is not secure today. Most Americans will say that even if border apprehensions have declined to half the levels of 2000-05, that is small comfort. At a time when terrorist plots against the United States remain a serious concern, 400,000 illegal crossings are 400,000 too many.
Can this nation find some legal accommodation for young people brought here by their parents as small children? Probably, if it involves only legal work status and not an easy path to citizenship. The opposition to this idea comes not from callousness toward this problem but from two legitimate and compelling concerns: a well-founded distrust of administrative laxity and dishonesty in the enforcement of carefully crafted provisions, and an equally well-founded concern about the predictable consequences of granting such accommodations in the absence of true border security.
The current Republican panic over the level of Latino support for President Obama should not be allowed to distort or obscure the underlying issues in the immigration reform debate. It is both bad policy and suicidal politics to design important legislation based on delusions and wishful thinking.
Tom Tancredo, former Republican presidential candidate and congressman from Colorado, is president of the Rocky Mountain Foundation.