Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013 | 2:02 a.m.
For those who have never experienced legislative debates over comprehensive immigration reform, welcome to the circus, and hang on to your seats. Barely a nanosecond after President Barack Obama complimented the bipartisan guidelines for reform announced this week by the Senate’s “gang of eight,” seasoned skeptics began to parse any differences between the White House and Congress.
The potential show-stopper involves the Senate proposal to create a Southwest border commission, composed of local and state officials and community members. It will assess the progress of border security measures as a part of a process toward citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country. None of the “gang” has made entirely clear the powers of this commission; Democrats have said it would provide nonbinding recommendations, but Republican Marco Rubio has suggested it would essentially have veto power over any efforts to grant amnesty to undocumented workers.
The controversy over the Southwest border commission already has a name: the “trigger” issue.
Trying to discern the true nature of the commission is bait, a red herring, that the left seems all too eager to take. If Democrats use it to block comprehensive immigration reform, they’ll be giving the GOP a way out of a huge political mess. Republicans are under intense pressure to pass comprehensive reform, or risk further alienating Hispanic voters, but there are huge chunks of the party’s own base that remain adamantly opposed.
The commission itself is actually a good idea that will make reform much more palatable to border states. Immigration is many things, but it is mostly local. Progressives have long believed in the notion of cooperative federalism — that the most intractable issues of our time are best resolved when local, state and federal resources work in a cooperative and unified fashion. Such cooperation is what animates almost every major public policy effort in the modern age. Community efforts, often dubbed “having a seat at the table,” are just a means for state and local buy-in to a federal policy, whether in environmental planning efforts, education, disaster relief, public safety, tax codes or health care.
It should be no different with immigration. Pro-reform activists have, ironically, been making that same argument, often balking at federal enforcement efforts that seem inconsistent with state or local priorities. For example, when the federal government demanded that police forces help identify illegal immigrants, many communities pushed back strongly — they felt the effort to enforce immigration laws would undermine local police’s relationships with their communities.
For people along the Southwest border, immigration enforcement is more than an unpleasant duty that the president has to perform to maintain his public-safety credentials. Enforcement needs are real; public safety and security is what citizens of border states, and their elected officials, demand.
It has admittedly been tough and complicated to secure the border. The United States spends more money on border enforcement than all other immigration policies combined. Net migration from Mexico is down to zero, the result of a bad economy in the United States and the billions of dollars spent on fences, drones and agents. Obama has deported 1.5 million people for unlawful status.
The successes of border enforcement have helped make border politics more dynamic. For every Jan Brewer, the Arizona governor who built her career on anti-illegal-immigrant sentiment, there is a Rick Perry, the Texas governor who embraces amnesty.
Mayors such as Ken Miyagishima of Las Cruces, N.M., Raul Salinas of Laredo, Texas, and Greg Stanton of Phoenix know the necessity of giving immigrants legal status, if only to boost the local tax base. These politicians, too, will have a spot on the Southwest border commission.
The Senate guidelines are just a draft. Other language in the document appears to limit the powers of the border commission. It’s unlikely that even Republicans in Congress will want to give the commission too much control over border policy; they know that there are liberal states such as California on the border, too.
This commission doesn’t merit vilification. It does nothing more than establish a formal mechanism by which the politically diverse communities most affected by federal policies can have a seat at the table. In almost every other issue, that is what progressives have been arguing for all along.
Juliette Kayyem is a columnist for the Boston Globe.