The "comprehensive" label would suggest that beefed up border security would be at least one integral part of any final reform package, and rest assured that everyone on all sides of the debate will at least claim that it is. The real question is whether achieving certain concrete benchmarks will be meaningfully required before other elements of the law are triggered, such as starting the clock on a multi-year path to citizenship for illegals. Virtually every Republican says yes. Barack Obama (for now) and Janet Napolitano say no. Chuck Schumer and other Democrats say maybe-ish. Plus, preliminary legalization and the "citizenship" track are two discrete stages of the process, the timeline of which is up for deliberation. Meanwhile, border security isn't just an academic discussion; for many citizens in the American Southwest, these questions are a daily concern. Most illegals are simply coming here in search of a better life -- something we can all relate to, even without endorsing illegal immigration. But a not-insignificant number of illegal border crossings involve individuals with more nefarious motives. The sanctity of our sovereignty affects lives, it impacts our national security, and it may well sink or sustain any grand deal that the so-called "gang of eight" presents in the coming days. As Katie reported yesterday, some US border patrol agents have noticed an exponential uptick in illegal border crossings over the last several weeks, an influx that may correlate with reports of legislative and public momentum for a potential widespread amnesty. I discussed the political implications of these anecdotal observations on Fox News last evening:
The clip of Napolitano at the very beginning of the segment, in which she assures Americans that the border is "as secure as it's ever been," is a real head-turner. Even many Democrats aren't willing to feed that line to the public. When a bipartisan contingent of pro-reform Senators visited Arizona on a border security fact-finding mission last week, a fact they unexpectedly found was...an illegal immigrant hopping a fence before their very eyes. But one might argue that Katie's sources are just the views and opinions of a handful of individuals, and the McCain/Schumer surprise was an unfortunate, but relatively isolated, incident. This is where Byron York's reporting comes in. I've quote it before, but his coverage of a House subcommittee meeting several weeks ago lends essential context to deliberations over the issue of immigration as a whole. The Department of Homeland Security -- which Ms. Napolitano heads -- has been unable to document and track the progress of their border security measures since they supplanted the previous "operational control" measures with a new set of "holistic" metrics nearly three years ago:
Then the Department of Homeland Security threw out the concept of operational control, which Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called “archaic.” The administration promised to create something called the Border Condition Index, or BCI, which would be a “holistic” (and a far better) measure of border security. Time passed, with no BCI. “Nearly three years later, the department has not produced this measure, so at this hearing, we will be asking for a status of the BCI, what measures it will take into account and when it might be ready,” subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Candice Miller, a Republican, said before Wednesday's testimony. Getting BCI up and running is particularly important now, Miller added, because comprehensive immigration reform cannot happen without a reliable way to assess border security. So imagine everyone's surprise when Mark Borkowski, a top Homeland Security technology official, told Miller that not only was BCI not ready, but that it won't measure border security and was never meant to. “I don't believe that we intend, at least at this point, that the BCI would be a tool for the measurement that you're suggesting,” Borkowski told Miller. “The BCI is part of a set of information that advises us on where we are and, most importantly, what the trends are ... It is not our intent, at least not immediately, that it would be the measure you are talking about.” Miller appeared stunned and practically begged Borkowski, along with two other Homeland Security officials who were testifying, to tell her what she wanted to hear. “I'm just trying to let this all digest” she said. “We're sort of sitting here, as a Congress ... At what point will you be able to give us something?” She never got an answer.
This is why any Congressional plan must specify exactly what qualifies as a secure border, and construct robust verification and enforcement mechanisms -- which history has shown to be rather elusive. York patches together a brief history of failed legislative efforts to crack down on visa "overstays," which account for a substantial percentage of America's illegal population:
But like the case of border security, Congress has passed law after law, going back to 1996, requiring the executive branch to crack down on overstays. The promised enforcement has never happened. Among the measures: The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996; the Immigration and Naturalization Service Data Management Improvement Act of 2000; the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001; the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002; and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. All directed the executive branch to stop visa overstays, but the problem remains. A look at the recent House hearing, as well as at the long-standing overstay problem, highlights a major obstacle to comprehensive immigration reform. The executive branch has the authority to enforce border and visa security. But these days, it appears the executive branch, particularly the Department of Homeland Security, doesn't want to do the job. Why would passing a new comprehensive immigration reform measure change that?
That's a damn good question -- one that reform proponents will have to answer, convincingly and in detail. "It'll be different this time" won't cut it. Public polling has shown that a significant majority of Americans support a path to citizenship -- or at least some form of legal residency -- for non-criminal illegal immigrants, as part of a larger reform. Even larger majorities also want better border enforcement. These are not mutually exclusive ends, but a just and sustainable future for the former goal is not plausible without achieving the latter. We'll see what the 'gang' has in mind, perhaps as early as late this week.
Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson. He is co-authors with Mary Katharine Ham for their new book End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography
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