Over the past decade, the debate over immigration reform has developed a clear pattern: Republicans demand strengthened border security as a pre-condition for any serious reform. Democrats give it to them. Then Republicans demand more, and the cycle repeats itself. It’s time to call the House Republican caucus’ position on “securing the border” what it is: a ruse to protect them from taking a politically unpopular vote on immigration reform.
Any discussion of border security must start with this simple fact: By almost any measure, the U.S.-Mexico border is more secure than ever. Deportations are at historic highs, even as the number of immigrants crossing the border has rapidly declined. There are record numbers of U.S. Border Patrol and ICE agents, and 650 miles of fencing now combine with the Colorado River and Rio Grande to cover a huge portion of the border.
But still, Republicans insist that further increases to border security must be a pre-condition to any immigration reform efforts.
When the Senate finally passed the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill in June, with the support of every Democrat and 14 Republicans, reform advocates paid a steep price for a bipartisan stamp of approval. The bill only passed after the addition of a “border surge” amendment, which would spend roughly $30 billion to double the size of the Border Patrol and build 700 miles of new fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border, among other new security measures.
The strict new reforms are deeply questionable policy, but at least they satisfied the Republicans who refused to move on comprehensive immigration reform until we “seriously beef up the border security part,” as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell repeatedly insisted.
At least it satisfied Senate Republicans.
To the GOP’s House majority, the new security measures are “weak,” and “laughable,” as House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) put it in June. With few exceptions, the Republican caucus has fallen in line behind the Speaker, and declared: No immigration bill can pass without even more extreme security measures.
That congressional Republicans would move the goalposts on border security comes as little surprise; in fact, it’s been their primary legislative strategy on immigration for years. As a January 2013 report from the American Immigration Lawyers Association makes clear, each time the government clears a suggested benchmark, Congress simply demands that it go further — and refuses to enact any reforms until the new benchmarks are cleared.
In 2006, when the government employed 12,185 Border Patrol agents, the Senate suggested hiring 2,000 more. In 2007, when there were 14,293 agents, the Senate proposed increasing the number to 20,000. In 2010, when the number had risen to 20,558 — almost double the total from four year prior — the Senate suggested increasing the force to 21,000. Now the Senate has passed a bill hiring 20,000 new agents, and the House says that’s not big enough.
Similarly, the 2007 Senate bill called for four unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor the border, and the 2010 bill called for seven. As of 2012 there were nine in operation, with more planned.
The 2007 bill required the construction of 370 miles of border fencing before Congress would consider comprehensive immigration reform. Today the fence stretches over 650 miles, and the Gang of Eight bill proposes building 700 miles more — still not far enough, apparently, for Speaker Boehner to even bring the Senate bill to the floor for a vote.
At this point it’s clear that House Republicans are using border security as an excuse to indefinitely delay a politically unpopular vote on comprehensive immigration reform. No border security measure will ever be strict enough to convince them to fix the broken system. In fact, some House Republicans aren’t even pretending anymore that they could be won over.
“I think what [President Obama] has done over the past two and a half weeks — he’s trying to destroy the Republican Party,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) said in the aftermath of the government shutdown. “I think that anything we do right now with this president on immigration will be with that same goal in mind, which is to destroy the Republican Party and not to get good policies.”
“The president’s not going to enforce the law,” Rep. Steve King (R-IA) said over the summer, while explaining his opposition to the Gang of Eight bill. “Harry Reid is not going to take up border enforcement.”
Yes, the newest benchmark appears to be removing President Obama and Majority Leader Reid from office. And based on recent history, if Democrats were to agree, then Republicans would probably refuse to discuss immigration reform unless Hillary Clinton were banned from running for president in 2016.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr