Immigration Reform and Border Communities: We Need Bipartisan Problem-Solving

02/04/2011 05:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Arturo Venegas, Jr. Former Sacramento Police Chief, Director of the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative

Last week, like millions around the world, I listened to President Obama give the State of the Union address and wondered how much of his challenge would be met by the 112th Congress -- to work in a bipartisan way to lead the world in innovation and technology, to rebuild education and infrastructure, and to create jobs that put Americans to work.  The speech balanced two visions: President Kennedy's getting us to the moon, and President Franklin Roosevelt's getting Americans back to work after the Great Depression.

Earlier this month, I was in Laredo, TX for an executive session on immigration sponsored by the Laredo Police Department and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a Washington, D.C. law enforcement think tank.  In attendance were executives from various state and local police and sheriff‘s departments, as well as federal agencies; Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, made up the largest block of federal agents.  The session centered around the impact of immigration -- an issue the President addressed in his speech, and reached out to Republicans to help him resolve -- on border communities.

Obama promised to pass immigration reform in the first year of his administration, but instead the 111th Congress was defined by tougher immigration enforcement and border security demands.  Deportations have been higher every year of the Obama administration than any of the eight years of the Bush administration.

What a difference a month can make.  Now, after the midterm elections, the Republican Party, declaring victory and a mandate after winning a majority in the House, is acting on an agenda every bit as partisan as the one that created the stalemate voters condemned during the election.

The kind of divisions that we saw in the last Congress did nothing to move us any closer to a much-needed solution on the issue of immigration.  For all the hollering and fearmongering about “securing the border,” FBI statistics will tell you that the safest large city in America is El Paso, Texas -- which borders Ciudad Juarez, the most violent city in Mexico.  I learned last week that Laredo, Texas has a similar “crime gap” when compared to its neighboring Mexican city, Nuevo Laredo.

Our southern border (along with the states it touches) is being used a pawn for politics rather than progress.  Ask police chiefs and sheriffs in those Southwestern states and they will tell you, as they have reported in their crime statistics to the FBI, their communities are some of the safest places in America. What is really infecting the border cities in America -- a downturn in tourism and business, slashing revenues that used to help their economies -- is due to the rhetoric about “border violence” that has tarred these peaceful towns.

Many of these border cities have had social, cultural and economic ties to Mexican communities since their founding -- and vice versa.  The police chiefs and sheriffs of these counties will tell you that their economies thrive when people can come and leave, work, and buy products in both places.  When immigrant work programs existed that enabled people to travel back and forth, the U.S. didn’t have the same problems -- like the crippling of border-town economies, or the division of nuclear families and extended support networks -- that we have today.

The same people who tell you border cities are unsafe will also tell you that cartels and narcotics have made a violent difference, especially south of the border.  Some of the cartels who deal in narcotics and guns are also involved in illegal immigrant trafficking, but the vast majority of immigrants coming across are only seeking a better life. They have little or nothing to do with the cartels or the violence plaguing the border.

What I found at the Laredo session is that in many places, relations between immigrants and law enforcement agencies, social services and schools are good.  They could be better, but at least public officials are trying.  They make an effort to address the conditions they find in a humane way, but, much like the rest of the country, they look to the federal government for a solution to the underlying problems, not the symptoms.   You can’t give someone an aspirin for a brain tumor.

The immigration system has been broken for a long time, and was not designed for the economic climate we would like or envision.  Border security, while it is needed, does nothing to solve the underlying problem.  Like the President said, educating kids and then kicking them out and sending them back to their home country only fuels the innovations and economies of America’s competitors.  It makes little sense.