Are We Really Near Comprehensive Immigration Reform?

07/08/2013 05:01 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2013

Headlines across the country cover the major legislative effort that could affect millions of our neighbors -- comprehensive immigration reform. Just days ago, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that the New York Times hailed as an "immigration overhaul." Even President Obama declared "If enacted, the Senate bill would establish the most aggressive border security plan in our history."

There is the rub: while this bill is being viewed as a great compromise to settle decades of debate, in reality this bill appears to be nothing short of a one-sided incredibly costly, southern border militarization effort. Specifically, the bill's enforcement components contain incredibly onerous goals that are astronomically costly, will take years (if they are ever to be achieved), and must be met in order for any pro-immigrant aspects of the bill to be implemented. That is far from a compromise.

There are no less than five triggers or enforcement preconditions to this proposed law. First, the DHS secretary must submit to Congress, after first consulting with 1) the attorney general, 2) the secretary of defense, and 3) the inspector general of DHS and the comptroller general, a written certification that each of the following measures has been achieved: substantial deployment and operationalization of the Comprehensive Southern Border Security Strategy. This strategy must in turn be deployed with new technologies along the Yuma, Tucson, San Diego, El Centro, El Paso, Big Bend, Del Rio, Laredo, and Rio Grande Valley border sectors in order to conduct manned or unmanned monitoring, sensing, or surveillance of 100 percent of the southern border. The bill also requires that this strategy, or plan, be deployed and operational before any other aspects of the bill move forward.

And if that wasn't enough, the implementation of this strategy requires that it be submitted to Congress, certifying that there are no fewer than a total of 700 miles of pedestrian fencing along the southern border, with pedestrian fencing replacing existing vehicle fencing. Third, all employers in the U.S. must use an electronic employment eligibility verification system (E-Verify). Fourth, there must be implementation of an electronic monitoring system at all international air and seaports. And finally no fewer than 38,405 trained, full-time, active-duty U.S. Border Patrol agents must be deployed along the southern border. These last three preconditions could take at least several years under optimal conditions.

For immigrant advocates, the bill has promise, including an expanded version of the DREAM Act, a pathway to citizenship for the other undocumented, and W Visas for temporary workers. However, given the costs and likely delays associated with the enforcement triggers addressed above, it is unclear if there will ever be anything other than enforcement-only reform, at best, or brute militarization, at worst. These measures, which would cost millions upon millions, and may take over a decade to implement, makes it at least questionable whether any substantial relief for the undocumented will ever occur. And just imagine if during the enforcement stages, the country faces challenges such as war, which may delay or prolong the implementation of the preconditions. Imagine further the possibility of a prolonged recession, or other unforeseen national problems, that could delay these preconditions even further -- few of the millions of hard-working immigrant families may be present to ever approach the so-called pathway to citizenship in this bill. Their dreams will go of the way of Vice-President Al Gore's presidential campaign proposal of an economic lockbox for our country's economic surplus -- can any of us recall that well-intended dinosaur?

Only the poorest of compromises are achieved when only one side's wishes are met before the others are even considered. Thus the Senate bill is far from what the media has been praising.

Now the reform proposal is before the House of Representatives, which is more conservative, and structurally more regionally preoccupied. You see, House Representatives often worry more about their local, often gerrymandered districts, instead of national issues. This in turn means that Congressional districts may be insulated from immigrant issues. Unlike Florida, where immigrant issues are relevant to all parts of the state, many House members need not worry about such matters. Indeed, the latest banter in the House is that any path to citizenship, no matter how remote, is simply unacceptable.

I worry that this bill will turn out much like the calls for comprehensive reform in 2005, where hundreds of thousands of immigration reform supporters took to our streets to call for change -- only to receive the enforcement-only Secure Fence Act of 2006. It seems like something less than "sweeping reform" is afoot, unless we are merely once again referring to sweeping the undocumented under the proverbial rug?