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Border Security and Border Rhetoric

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An interesting piece is out there this week on the Brownsville federal judge who blocked President Obama’s executive order on immigration brought to my mind, again, that the debate on immigration and border security too often is about sound bites rather than people.

The article I’m referring to was about Judge Andrew S. Hanen, who was in a Baylor law school study group with conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Justice Priscilla Owen and liberal Houston trial lawyer John Eddie Williams. While President Obama has portrayed the case as one of judge shopping by then-Attorney General Greg Abbott to find a right-wingnut jurist, this piece in the not-so-conservative New York Times leaves you with a completely different picture of Judge Hanen.

Mr. Williams said he differed with Judge Hanen on immigration, supporting Mr. Obama “100 percent.” But he said, “I would disagree with anyone who would say Andy Hanen has any prejudice. His decisions will always be based on sound legal grounds.”

A key quote from Hanen’s order that is playing a large role in the Texas legislative debate over securing the border was this:

“The court finds that the government’s failure to secure the border has exacerbated illegal immigration into this country,” Judge Hanen said in the February ruling. The states’ coffers were “being drained by the constant influx of illegal immigrants,” he wrote. 

Once can argue just how much the state’s coffers are being drained. The Texas comptroller’s office in 2006 did the only study I know of on the economic impact of illegal immigration on Texas and found it to be a net plus, as the Associated Press reported at the time. “Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn found that illegal immigrants not only contributed more than $17 billion to the state’s economy in the last fiscal year, but that they also pay more than enough in taxes and fees to cover the services they receive.” Or as my own report in the Houston Chronicle said:

The $17.7 billion positive impact on the state’s economy does not factor in any effects of the immigrants sending money home.

The report estimated that there are 135,000 undocumented children in the public school system, costing the state slightly less than $957 million a year. Another 3,792 are in state colleges, costing about $11.2 million.

The total cost for state services was $1.15 billion, but illegal immigrants, through sales and property taxes, provided $1.58 billion in taxes for the state. That was a net positive impact to state finances of $424.7 million.

That is not, however, an argument for an open border. It is an argument, from my perspective, for how the entire immigration debate from both the Republican and the Democratic standpoint has ceased to be about reality and is all about scoring political points.

First, ask yourself why President Obama repeatedly refused to meet with former Governor Rick Perry on border security issues – other than the possibility that the president didn’t want to give any credibility to a governor from a state that didn’t vote for him. National Democratic concerns about border security over the years seem to have been driven more by a knee-jerk reaction to demagogues like Pat Buchanan than any real desire to address the issue holistically. When Obama finally met with Perry, it was for 15 minutes during a ride on Marine One, hardly the stuff of a substantive discussion. And when Obama was asked why he didn’t tour the border for himself. “I’m not interested in photo ops,” Obama told reporters. “I’m interested in solving the problem.” Obama has not visited the Rio Grande Valley since becoming president, although he campaigned there twice in 2008. He may meet with the president of Mexico in April when and new international bridge is dedicated.

But the shamelessness of Republicans is no better. Former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas used to deliver a speech about how if he was a man trying to raise a family in Mexico with high unemployment and low wages, he wouldn’t hesitate to “swim that river.” At the same time, Gramm voted against the 1986 amnesty plan signed into law by President Reagan because he said it rewarded lawlessness. And that has been a Republican mantra ever since. Because the border was not secured, the lawlessness of illegal immigration has continued. And under that banner, Republicans scuttled President George W. Bush’s attempts at immigration reform in 2006.

Consider this, though, by best estimates from the Pew Research Center, there currently are about 11.2 million immigrants living in the United States, down from a high of 12.2 million in 2007. If you’re not going to grant some form of amnesty with work visas, then the only alternative is to deport these people to their home countries. Let’s put that in perspective, if you took the entire population of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio combined, it would equal less than half the number of immigrants living illegally in the United States. Realistically, deportation just isn’t going to happen.

Perry in 2011 was a victim of Republican and Democratic misrepresentation of Texas’s in-state college tuition plan for undocumented children, a plan that some Republicans in the Legislature now want to eliminate. When the proposed federal Dream Act to give undocumented immigrant children a college education and a path to citizenship came under Republican fire, Democrats misrepresented the national plan by claiming it was just like the one signed into law by Perry. That simply was not the case. The Texas plan gave in-state tuition to children who graduated from Texas high schools after a period of residency. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 struck down a Texas law denying funding to school districts that educated undocumented children and required the state to provide a K-12 education to any student residing in the state. The law signed by Perry merely gave those students who could afford to go to college, in-state tuition. But his Republican opponents in the presidential campaign distorted the state law to make it sound like Mexicans were just walking across the border to grasp the prize of in-state tuition, and that simply was not true. Perry bungled his responses on the issue and tanked his campaign by telling conservatives if they didn’t believe in his law, then they “don’t have a heart.”

Republicans tend to dodge tough issues on immigration by saying you can’t discuss other aspects of immigration until you secure the border, a topic that is at the forefront of the current Legislature’s spending debates. What does securing the border really mean, though.

While hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants still enter the country every year (and many left during the recession) the truth is most immigrants came to this country in the years after Reagan signed the amnesty law, pouring in during the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. And do you secure the border with a ten-foot wall that is thwarted with a twelve-foot ladder? And are you talking drug smuggling or illegal immigration. Drug smuggling, because of the weight of the drugs usually requires bridges in Texas, while immigration occurs in rural areas. And illegal immigration tends to be like a leaky toothpaste tube, plug one hole and it springs forth elsewhere. An interesting California study found that a Border Patrol crackdown in California increased border crossings in Arizona, with the immigrants then turning west for California. 

But Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw is asking the Legislature for 500 more troopers and Texas Rangers to secure the border, along with thousands of new cameras. But just how effective is the DPS effort? A close reading of DPS reports indicates McCraw is like the hunter who shoots at everything that flies and claims everything that falls. DPS statistics are filled with arrests and drug seizures that only a careful reading will tell you were made by other local and federal law enforcement agencies but give the appearance of having been made by DPS.

We can give DPS credit for tipping off the U.S. Border Patrol to illegal crossings spotted on the state cameras, or to DPS officers assisting in border busts. But a recent report by the Houston Chronicle’s Brian M. Rosenthal on a secret DPS report showed that the border surge is drawing resources away from the rest of the state. Just this week, DPS announced a major drug bust that concluded with the arrest of 10 suspects and the seizure of 18 firearms, about $500,000 in cash, 37 pounds of methamphetamine and almost 25 pounds of cocaine. The case occurred in Amarillo, 748 miles from the border. Compare that with a few of the headlines from the U.S. Border Patrol:

Rio Grande Valley Agents Rescue 36 Illegal Immigrants; Pregnant Woman, March 10 

Rio Grande Valley Sector Agents Continue to Seize Thousands of Pounds of Marijuana, March 9

Eagle Pass CBP Officers Seize $972,000 Worth of Marijuana at Port, March 9

Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Agents Arrest Men with Ties to Criminal Street Gangs, March 6

Laredo Sector Border Patrol Agents Arrest an Undocumented Immigrant from Mexico Convicted of Murder, March 6. 

Two Children in Car Where CBP Finds Cocaine Load At El Paso Port, March 5

Carrizo Springs Border Patrol Agents Arrest Second Convicted Sex Offender This Week, March 5

That’s just from the past week. This may be just a drop in the bucket of illegal drug and human trafficking, but it is hardly a border that has been left totally unsecure by the federal government. As the Texas House and Senate debate spending $500 million to $800 million more in state tax dollars on border security, they really need to ask tougher questions about whether they are really enhancing border security or are on a spending spree to answer political rhetoric.

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