The umpteen members of congress who represent Austin are not burning up my phone to ask me how I'd solve immigration. But if they did, I'd tell them to call my friend Pete Gallego.*
A former state representative, Pete now represents a congressional district that sprawls from San Antonio across 800 miles of our border with Mexico all the way to El Paso. If there's one person in congress both parties should be listening to, it's the guy who represents a swing district where half of the residents speak a language other than English at home. To hear Pete tell it, his district is what Washington politicians don't get about immigration.
"Here's the thing about Texas -- and the thing about the border. We all know undocumented immigrants. They sit in our churches, are friends with our children and work all around us. They are just like us," says Gallego. "This issue affects people close to me. My grandmother was not a U.S. citizen. Growing up along the border, you see the real human side of immigration -- not the picture often drawn by politicians far removed from the border.
The polling on immigration is so bad for Republicans I almost feel sorry for them. In 2011, a CBS News Poll found that more Americans wanted to deport the undocumented workers (38 percent) than wanted to let them apply for citizenship (37 percent). Washington dug in, but Americans evolved. Now a majority wants to offer them a path to citizenship (53 percent), more than twice what deportation is registering (21 percent).
After Mitt Romney lost Hispanics by 44 percent, Republicans would be wise to surf this rising tide back into national contention, but they have one tiny problem. That hardcore 21 percent that thinks we're coddling our maids and fruit pickers is concentrated among Republican primary voters. Republican members of congress have to choose between winning the hearts and minds of the rising tide of Hispanic voters in this country or alienating their base of aging grumpy white men.
"The policy of the future cannot forever be determined by the politics of the past -- or even the present," says Gallego, who supports comprehensive immigration reform with a path to earned citizenship as do most of his constituents regardless of party.
Republican leaders on immigration including Rep. Lamar Smith are predicting a smaller immigration plan that combines border security with a national DREAM Act could pass. The DREAM Act would offer a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought here as children who went on to complete some college or who joined the military, and though Rick Perry got booed in the presidential primary for signing a similar bill in Texas, the February CBS poll discovered than an overwhelming 74 percent of Americans back this idea.
The problem with carping about border security, though, is that right now we're experiencing a net loss of undocumented workers due to the market forces of unemployment and stepped-up enforcement efforts. The Border Patrol has doubled the number boots on the ground since 2004 to an all-time high. The influx of undocumented immigrants is at its lowest point since 1970. And The Center for Migration Studies reports illegal emigration is at an all-time high. Functionally, the border is secure.
"The men and women at our borders, given adequate resources, are doing an excellent job of keeping us safe," says Gallego. "Cities along the border are among the safest in the country. El Paso was ranked the safest large city in the U.S. for the third consecutive year."
Insisting upon border security before reforming immigration ignores the 11 million paperless people who are already here and "go to school with our kids ... cook and serve our food, build our houses or help in our food supply," said Gallego.
"We all want our border to be secure," says Gallego. "However, certain individuals use this argument to stop us from ever enacting immigration reform. The truth is we can no longer wait. The time for reform is now."
* Full disclosure: Pete was a client in 2004 and in 2012 but is not currently a client.
Follow Jason Stanford on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JasStanford