THIS IS NOT THE IDEAL WAY to start a column about illegal immigration, but …
I don’t get what the fuss is all about. My sense is that illegal aliens work hard, perform essential tasks, and benefit the economy. They are exploiting us, and we are exploiting them. Some of them, notably the recently executed Railroad Killer, are bad guys who commit crimes. So are some perfectly legal American citizens. On the whole, the country seemed to have made its peace with the problem back in 1986, when Ronald Reagan signed a bill providing amnesty for aliens who could prove that they had resided in America for at least five years. Or so I thought.
About a year ago, I received a call from a political polling organization. One of the questions was “Which of the following do you think is the most important issue facing Texas?” The usual suspects were on the list: education, taxes, crime, abortion, health care, the environment. So was illegal immigration. I remember being moderately surprised and paid it no further heed. (In case you’re wondering, education was my answer.) The next day I mentioned the call to a Republican consultant and rattled off a few of the issues that I recalled. “Was illegal immigration on the list?” he asked. I said it was. Then he told me that it was the number one issue among the state’s Republican primary voters.
How did this happen? Where did the issue come from? The answer is the grass roots. This might seem to be commonplace in politics, but in fact it is rare. The usual ways that issues get on the national agenda are through changes in indicators—that is, statistics that are constantly being tracked by experts (for example, global warming); through triggering events (for example, the collapse of Enron, which led to reforms of corporate management); and through the political process, when they find a champion (for example, Harris Wofford’s upset victory in a 1991 special election for a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, which propelled health care into the forefront of the national debate). Although exceptions do come to mind, the vast majority of issues tend to percolate down, not up.
But the impulse for cracking down on illegal immigration is so strong among rank-and-file Republican voters that Republican politicians have no choice but to get out in front of the stampede, even though the issue could do major long-term damage to their hopes of attracting Latino votes. In June, Rick Perry, whose political instincts are unerring, announced plans to send National Guard and Texas Air Guard troops to the border and, with landowners’ permission, to install cameras on known cross-country routes. It was as if the number and type of illegal aliens had reached some invisible tipping point in the public’s mind, so that Texans in the cities and suburbs started to notice the presence not just of more Mexicans but also of OTMs—“other than Mexicans”—in visits to their children’s school or the emergency room. Perhaps word just spread from the rural borderlands, where ranchers say that many of the people crossing their land these days are “tatted up,” or covered with the sorts of tattoos you might see on drug smugglers. It doesn’t take long to make the connection between illegal immigration and other issues: crime, national security, education, the economy, and welfare spending. Dallas County’s majority-Republican commissioners’ court recently announced that Parkland Memorial Hospital plans to bill Mexico (as well as Dallas’s neighboring counties) for the $76 million it spent last year treating indigents who were not residents of the county, more out of frustration than anything else.
All of this made me curious enough to drive down to Laredo on the first Friday in July for a congressional hearing on immigration and national security. I didn’t expect much from the hearing itself. The House Republican majority had passed its immigration bill months ago; the session was a dog and pony show designed to embarrass the Senate, which had taken a more lenient approach to reform. The House hoped to demonstrate that immigration is a national security issue, thus justifying its proposals to build seven hundred miles of fences along the border, enforce laws against employers who hire illegal aliens, and make it a felony to be in the country illegally. One witness testified that Iraqi dinars had been found on a ranch near the border. Another spoke of finding Sudanese currency. The Border Patrol wanted more technology. Henry Bonilla, the GOP congressman who represents half of Laredo, said, “Hundreds of illegal aliens invade our border communities each day.” The chairman of the panel, a California Republican, said, “Some areas can accurately be described as a war zone.” An Iowa Republican said, “No Democrat has ever offered a bill to have more Border Patrol agents.” Democrats insisted he was wrong. It was all politics, no substance— entirely predictable stuff that didn’t advance the ball an inch but gave activists on both sides a chance to cheer and jeer. A better strategy to demonstrate the intellectual bankruptcy of Congress could scarcely be invented.
With one exception. The main reason I went to Laredo was to talk to Representative Silvestre Reyes, of El Paso, one of several Democrats from Texas who had been invited to join the panel. Reyes knows more about illegal immigration than anyone in Congress. For more than a quarter of a century, he was a Border Patrol agent. The grandson of an immigrant from Chihuahua, he rose through the ranks to be the first Latino sector chief, first in McAllen, then, in 1993, El Paso. In the latter city, he reduced the number of apprehensions per day from 1,000 to 150.
This may sound like a bad performance; in fact, it was a great performance. The policy of the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the time was to hunt for illegals after they had successfully made their way into this country. An average of 10,000 illegals were crossing every day,