For more than 26 years I served on the border, first as a Border Patrol agent, and eventually as sector chief in McAllen and later El Paso, Texas. I know first hand what it takes to keep our enemies out, including drug dealers and human traffickers. For years in Congress I’ve worked to advance and improve our nation’s border security and reform our immigration laws.
From fighting to end the so-called catch-and-release policy on non-Mexicans caught crossing the border, to working to provide our Border Patrol with the resources they need. I’ve always kept the mindset that this is not about Republicans or Democrats. It’s about doing what’s right for our country. One thing was clear to me from the beginning both as a Border Patrol agent and as a member of Congress. We cannot solve our nation’s immigration and border security problems with a piecemeal approach.
I’ve seen the desperation in the eyes of those who risk their lives to cross the desert because they have run out of options to sustain themselves and their families in their home countries. Border security measures alone cannot hold them back while they can continue to find employment within our borders.
That’s why so many of the good men and women from both political parties who worked on crafting legislation to fix our broken immigration system came to the consensus that we needed a comprehensive approach. We could not just focus on border security, without dealing with the issues that drive immigration, including the demand for labor.
Furthermore, states and localities across the country have been forced to address the issues related to undocumented immigration as a result of the federal government’s failures. At the same time, American workers have rightfully expressed concern over wages being affected by an underground economy. These complexities made it clear that we needed to address the status of the millions of immigrants already here.
John McCain agreed. On the floor of the United States Senate in September of 2006, Sen. McCain praised that the Senate had “rejected the argument for an ‘enforcement first’ strategy that focuses on border security only, an ineffective and ill-advised approach.” He went on to add that, “the only way to truly secure our border and protect our nation is through the enactment of comprehensive immigration reform.” Mr. McCain added that a “piecemeal approach” could not “achieve any real results,” and that Congress would be “sadly mistaken” to think so.
Struggling for his party’s nomination, Mr. McCain backed off from comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, telling anyone who would listen that he had gotten “the message” from the American people. In the heat of the Republican primaries earlier this year, Mr. McCain went so far as to say that he would not vote for the comprehensive immigration reform bill he had co-sponsored in 2006.
Then last week, the message had changed again, and Mr. McCain appeared to be trying to have it both ways. According to news reports, Mr. McCain told Hispanic leaders in Chicago that he supports comprehensive immigration reform, but continues to tell other audiences that the borders have to be secured first before considering any other aspects of our broken immigration system. Those are two very different approaches.
If the senator supports comprehensive reform, he should say so. I, for one, would welcome it, and I’m sure many of the good people who worked on the comprehensive bills over the past several years would too. If the opposite is true, and Mr. McCain will pursue an enforcement-first strategy that deals only with border security, he should say so too. I would disagree with him, and to quote Mr. McCain, would make it clear he is “sadly mistaken” if he thinks a piecemeal approach will deliver “any real results.” But at least we’ll know where he stands.
This weekend Mr. McCain will address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), and will have a chance to clarify which position he holds. It can be only one. Either he supports comprehensive reform, or he supports an enforcement-first strategy. He cannot have it both ways. On such an important issue, the American people deserve an answer. Mr. McCain, it’s time for straight talk.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat, is a former sector chief and agent for the U.S. Border Patrol.