Editorial: Immigration Bills Are Not Reform by Miguel Levario

Borderlands History blog is pleased to host this editorial on the immigration legislation currently being debated in congress, written by historian Miguel Levario, author of Militarizing the Border: When Mexicans Became the Enemy (Texas A&M University Press, 2012). 

As the debate rages on in both the Senate and the House of Representatives regarding immigration policy, we must be clear that the proposals are not about reform. Both the Senate and House versions do NOT improve our immigration infrastructure but rather expand it.  Everything from legalizing the status of millions of undocumented residents to militarizing the border is not a shift or improvement in American policy.

First, let me begin with one of the most glaring problems with the latest Senate version of the immigration bill, which is the collapsing of immigration and border security into one singular entity.  Immigration and border security are inherently contradictory.  Immigration suggests openness and movement while border militarization and security suggests closure and resistance to outside influences.  More specifically, according to the proposal, a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents would not be fully realized until the border is 100% secure.  This is an impossible benchmark. Not only historically do we see evidence of the impossibility of such a task, but the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), as recently as 2012, stated that such a goal is virtually impossible.  At best, the DHS and the CBP have been able to control about 44% of the border.   The most common response from “border security” advocates is that more agents on the border would increase that level of control; however, lawmakers and pundits fail to adequately quantify or qualify the exact number of border patrol agents needed to ensure border security (Chen & Kim, American Immigration Lawyers Association, 1). Therefore, as a result of impossible benchmarks, many unauthorized immigrants will continue to be kept in limbo with regard to their permanent legal standing and the militarization of the border will continue without a clear objective.  In other words, their status in the United States will continue with only a slight improvement but they will remain a legally marginalized population with few benefits and protections until a mythical security benchmark can be achieved by the CBP.

Greg Chen and Su Kim wrote in “Border Security: Moving Beyond Past Benchmarks,” an American Immigration Lawyers Association report (January 2013), that DHS and CBP have increased border personnel since 2007 and arbitrarily identified that 20,000 agents were needed without giving an explanation of why or how they arrived at that number.  In 2011, there were over 21,000 border agents, nearly double the number in 2006 (Chen and Kim, 1). Again, despite these increases, current debate continues to demand more agents without any real explanation of why we need more or what the number should be to satisfactorily secure the border.  More importantly, recent research shows that an increase in border agents does not mean more security or a reduction in the movement of illicit goods or unauthorized immigrants. For example, today apprehensions by Border Patrol nationwide are the lowest level since 1972.

Much like the military industrial complex that is become increasingly “too big to fail” because of the billions of dollars invested, border infrastructure is following the same model.  Senate bills in 2006 (S. 2611), 2007 (S. 1639) and a subsequent bill in 2010 (S.3932) called for fencing and the increase of drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).  Today, we far exceeded the numbers set in those bills. The 2007 bill called for at least 370 miles of fencing, 300 miles of vehicle barriers, 105 ground surveillance towers, and four UAVs. Today the CBP has 651 miles of fencing, 300 video surveillance systems installed, and nine UAVs in operation (Chen & Kim, 2-3). Again, the calls for more drones, agents, and expanded infrastructure are not about reform but more of the same. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly more costly without any real justification for the increase or expansion.

The incessant call for security would suggest that the United States’ southern border is wrought with violence and is unsafe.  However, statistical and testimonial data show that violent crime in three states’ border counties was lower by at least 26 percent in 2011 than in 2004 (Government Accountability Office Report: “Southwest Border Security Data Are Limited and Concerns Vary about Spillover Crime along the Southern Border”, 1). Assaults on Border Agents are also less lethal than for police officers in some of the United States’ inner cities.  Rockings, or rock throwing, was by far the most common assault endured by CBP agents between 2006 and 2011 (GAO, 23). Arizona governor Jan Brewer is one of the most vocal when it comes to so-called “spillover violence” and its increase in her state but her assertions have been largely debunked by data collected by the Border Patrol and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). According to the conservative Americas Majority Foundation, crime rates during the period 1999–2006 were lowest in states with the highest immigration growth rates. Foreign-born people in the United States are less likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes than native-born U.S. citizens, according to the National Institute of Corrections (“10 Myths About Immigration,” Southern Poverty Law Center).

My last point is the falsehood that a path to citizenship exists in the proposed bills.  Citizenship or permanent legal residency (Green Card status) is suspended until border security benchmarks are met.  Moreover, the criteria before immigrants can apply for citizenship are so lengthy that it would take anywhere between 10-15 years before legal permanent residency is finalized.  In addition, it is not widely known what legal protections these provisional legal residents will have. Will they be subject to due process? Will they have access to legal representation if they can’t afford it? What rights do they have? This is a major gap that is not satisfactorily addressed. There is also the issue of taxation.  Immigrants’ legal standing will only be granted if they pay back-taxes and fines.  How will back- taxes be quantified if they were working “under the table” so to speak? What about the back-taxes owed by employers? In the current Senate bill it is clear that provisional legal residents will be taxed but denied some of the basic services supported by taxpayer money like healthcare and welfare.  Why should they be taxed when they will be denied the services those tax dollars support?

The immigration “reform” bill is a farce and is merely an extension of the current border infrastructure and failed policies. These immigration proposals will further marginalize active residents in our communities and further demonize immigrants, especially ethnic Mexicans, as our southern border continues to militarize. The bill is inherently contradictory, as immigration and border security are blended into one. Moreover, it suggests that immigrants are a national security threat and require unprecedented vigilance.  If we are to hold true to our tradition of immigration in this country, we must address it apart from border security and lay a path that is welcoming and just and not meant to punish and marginalize.

— Miguel A. Levario, Ph.D., Author of Militarizing the Border: When Mexicans Became the Enemy (Texas A&M University Press, 2012)

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