It’s game on for immigration reform in 2013. Prospects for a real immigration bill this year took a big step forward last week as a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” Senators released its framework for an immigration bill, and President Obama staked out his own position with a speech and a written set of principles.
Washington State stands to benefit greatly from an inclusive, humane and comprehensive immigration reform bill. This two-part series will analyze the core elements of last week's two immigration proposals. (Neither is a bill yet, just the principles and a framework for one.) Part One of the series focuses on border security and treatment of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already in America and, in some cases, have been for decades.
Part 2 (coming this Wednesday) will look at the components of the proposals that deal with reform of the legal immigration system. These include family reunification, high-tech and research sector immigration, employment verification and the future flow of workers.
Washington State has an undocumented population of about 240,000 people. Many work in the state’s $18 billion agricultural industry, which depends on immigrant labor. Others are employed in restaurants, hotels and in various trades. Still more undocumented immigrants work at home, taking care of their kids or our kids as part of a temporary and informal labor market. Almost one-fifth of Washington’s undocumented immigrants are young people who were brought here as children. Often, they are unaware of their illegal status until they are much older. For many of these young people, known as DREAMers, American is the only home they know.
The framework laid out by the Senate’s Gang of Eight outlines two paths to citizenship: a faster path for DREAMers and agricultural industry workers, and a slower, more cumbersome path for everyone else — a path which involves securing our borders. President Obama's plan proposed the same process for legalization and path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants, and it does not make this path contingent on border security — although it does propose improvements to border security.
Given that Washington State has substantial populations of both DREAMers and undocumented agricultural workers, the Senate’s two-track approach would not be bad for our state. But everyone would benefit if there were one clear and direct path to citizenship.
Under the Senate framework, undocumented immigrants who are not DREAMers or agricultural workers, and who have not committed a “serious crime,” would be eligible for temporary legal status once they have paid a fine and any back taxes. However, the next step — permanent legal residence — would be “contingent” on border security and a functioning exit-entry system.
So how do we define and measure border security?
A recent report by The Migration Policy Institute found that the U.S. spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement in 2012. That’s more than the combined amount spent on five other federal agencies: FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement, U.S. Marshal Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The U.S. Border Patrol has doubled in size over the past decade to over 21,000 agents, and there are now 652 miles of steel barriers separating the U.S. and Mexico. (Consider that the Berlin Wall — when it stood — was about 100 miles long). As a result of increased federal spending — and the economic recession — the number of illegal crossings and apprehensions at the border have both dropped significantly. And yet, in the estimation of the federal government, the border remains vulnerable.
The Government Accountability Office addressed the elusive nature of border security in a December 2012 report. The GAO concluded that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must establish actual performance goals and measures for assessing “border security.” DHS also said it intends to shift from a “resource-based approach” to security to a “risk-management approach that leverages existing resources.” In other words, DHS has the necessary resources and technology. What it lacks is a more nuanced and strategic approach to border security that better suits the evolving threats.
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