Get ready for a big news week on immigration. Unfortunately, a lot of it will be political posturing from both sides, with the serious debate over the important issues hard to find.
For starters, the Obama administration will file suit against Arizona’s new law, which allows local cops to request citizenship papers or green cards from suspects. The law has sparked heated debates in neighboring states over whether they should adopt similar laws, an issue sure to figure in the November elections. It has also prompted a national debate. Polls show a majority of Americans back the law even though a majority also think it will lead to racial discrimination. They’ve apparently decided it’s worth the price.
At the same time, Obama has formally asked Congress for $600 million for additional border security, and he’s promised to send 1,200 National Guard troops to help. Administration officials will travel to Arizona on June 28 to detail their plans to GOP Gov. Jan Brewer.
Not much progress, though, on the broader question of a comprehensive immigration bill -- one that would combine tough border measures with both a guest worker program to alleviate labor shortages and a path to legal status (after paying fines and back taxes and waiting in line) for the 11 million or so illegal immigrants already in the country. Hispanic groups are demanding action on the whole package, and Democrats who need their votes this fall, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose home state of Nevada has a healthy proportion of potential Latino voters are promising to try.
But action is unlikely because Republicans and conservative Democrats don’t want to go near the issue. Even past advocates of a comprehensive bill -- Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) -- are shying away from bills very similar to the one they supported and President George W. Bush pushed a few years back.
The GOP cry is that securing the border must come first. “Once we get the border secured, then we can support a lot of other things,” says Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ). Fine, but what exactly does that mean? The U.S.-Mexico border is already far more secure than it was a few years ago, with double the number of agents, 510 miles of fences and barriers, and much more technology to guard against illegal crossings. In Arizona, for example, there are now 10 guards for every mile of border. As a result, by every measure, illegal crossings are down significantly.
The truth is that many who oppose immigration reform will never be satisfied until the border is sealed tight -- which is obviously impossible. It’s a goal the U.S. can never reach, and they know it. They’ll keep using it as an excuse so they can oppose legislation forever. Dennis Wagner explored this question of how to define “secure enough” in The Arizona Republic this week in what was an eminently reasonable argument. The comments it attracted -- 864 the last time I checked -- were much less reasonable. Leaving aside those who called Wagner names, many argued they just never accept amnesty for illegals, insisting that’s what comprehensive legislation provides. For the record, that’s not true. The dictionary defines amnesty as a pardon, which is not what the proposed bill offers. Making illegals pay their debts to society is akin to the way we treat other criminals, and no one calls that amnesty.
But the posturing goes on, with no sign of a compromise. Eventually, conditions may change enough to allow progress. A more robust economy will prompt businesses to demand a solution to labor shortages, and the ever-growing political clout of Hispanic voters will force politicians to take notice. But that’s still a long way off.