A Lot Riding on the Border Security Issue in Senate Immigration Reform Proposal

(Updated below)

While both the Senate “gang of eight” and the President seem to agree on the key components of immigration reform, the border security component, at least in the Senate proposal, looks a little bit more key than the others. From today’s Washington Post:

Under the Senate’s new blueprint for reform, the legalization of undocumented immigrants would only happen if the government “finally commit[s] the resources needed to secure the border,” as well as strict visa enforcement for legal immigrants. It’s a provision that’s similar to Bush’s 2007 immigration bill, which also made legalization contingent on beefed-up border security. (my emphasis)

In other words, if I understand this correctly, the part of the legislation that many of us in the adult education community are most interested in—a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants—will be entirely contingent on an agreement over whether sufficient resources are being provided for border security. And that’s troubling because the language in the Senate document implies we’re not doing enough right now, even though there is evidence that, in fact, we are. Again, quoting that same story in the Post:

The Senate’s language suggests that the government has held back from devoting money, equipment and personnel to border security. In fact, we’ve hit nearly all of the targets that the 2007 bill established for increased border security—except for achieving absolute “operational control” of the border and mandatory detention of all border-crossers who’ve been apprehended.

This raises the possibility that, despite the evidence that we’ve actually beefed up border security over the last five years quite a bit, and achieved most of the targets that were in the 2007 bill, there are members of Congress who are going to push for more no matter what. If so, then I think the debate on border security is not going to be so much a policy debate over whether sufficient resources are truly being committed or not, but more of a political negotiation. That is, it may boil down to those in Congress representing border states pushing as hard as they can to get as much money for border security out of this bill as possible, whatever the need actually is. The higher their price, the higher the hurdle will be for the legalization provision to go forward (and the less likely, perhaps,  that Congress will be willing to invest in other things, like additional English classes).

Even if I’m wrong in my specific analysis, there’s no question in my mind that the negotiations around the border security issue are going to be critical. I’ll be looking closely at the draft legislation that emerges from the Senate to see how they define the level of commitment to border security that will be sufficient to trigger the legalization provisions.

UPDATE: More on the border security “trigger,” from TPM:

Responding to challenges from [Rush] Limbaugh that Obama would demand reforms with fewer border security measures, [Senator] Rubio emphasized his willingness to walk away from a bill if he didn’t get what he wanted on that front. In particular, he said including enforcement measures as a “trigger” for undocumented immigrants to seek permanent residency was key. (my emphasis)

UPDATE 1/30/13: More from Reuters, yesterday:

…[D]ifferences quickly emerged between what Obama would like and the proposals by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators, whose plan is heavy on border security.

Obama pushed for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants that is faster than the one the Senate group proposed.

Rather than emphasize border security first, he would let undocumented immigrants get on a path to citizenship if they first undergo national security and criminal background checks, pay penalties, learn English and get behind those foreigners seeking to immigrate legally.

“We all agree that these men and women should have to earn their way to citizenship. But for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship,” he said.

For Republicans, this is a sticking point. The Gang of Eight plan envisions first taking steps to toughen security along the U.S.-Mexican border before setting in motion the steps illegal immigrants must take to gain legal status. (my emphasis)