06/26/2013 03:44 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

The Border Between Rhetoric and Reality

When I think of the U.S.-Mexico border, I think of Cesar and the strong scent of Pine Sol. I wonder what picture of the border comes to mind for Senators John Hoeven (R-ND) and Bob Corker (R-TN), perhaps it is a concrete barrier with guards keeping constant watch. There is no question that the Hoeven-Corker border security plan is politically brilliant and much-needed for the anticipated passage of comprehensive immigration reform legislation. However, the military-style enforcement surge is as far from the reality of border residents' lives as North Dakota and Tennessee are from the border itself.

A year ago, I stayed at a shelter for undocumented immigrant families in El Paso, Texas, steps away from the U.S.-Mexico border. That's where I met Cesar, a smiley middle-school kid, washing his socks in the sink with way too much of the evergreen detergent, excitedly recounting the details of his soccer game. At the dinner table, his younger sister Karina belted out a Lady Gaga standard with me, much to the consternation of Carolina, their serious younger sister. For me and ten other Harvard Kennedy School students, it was a unique experience. For Cesar and his sisters, it was another week in undocumented limbo.

The "house of hospitality" where we stayed is run by a non-profit that takes no funding from government, foundations or charities, operating on private donations and an all-volunteer staff. It could not possibly house all 100 U.S. Senators, but for the sake of a thought experiment, picture them signing up for a border immersion experience. The senators would share bunk beds, help with chores, play soccer with Cesar, meet his mom, Norma, and hear the sad, hopeful stories of other immigrants. It would be nothing like the committee hearings two thousand miles away.

Experiencing the border through the eyes of their housemates would give the senators the kind of data that cannot be conveyed in a report. How might they react to the tearful Alma, whose family escaped the cartels, nearly dying on the roofs of moving trains rumbling north from their Guatemalan home, all the way across Mexico? When our group met her, her husband had been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and sent to a detention facility in New Mexico, pending removal proceedings. She was heartbroken. Despite the cartel violence they faced, Alma, her husband and their son are unlikely to receive asylum.

I don't know how Alma crossed the border, the odds of evading both the brutalities of Mexico's immigration authorities and the high-tech traps of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seem impossibly slim. In the end, she didn't succeed. Even without the Hoeven-Corker enforcement surge, the border has more layers than most people know -- there are roving checkpoints on highways and motion sensors in the desert around El Paso. That's why Sergio, an undocumented high school student, poring over calculus homework on a dilapidated couch, could not dream about going to college beyond El Paso, much less about joining young DREAM Act advocates in lobbying Congress.

Then there's the other side of the border. The senators might be as surprised as I was that two miles south of the Rio Grande, residents of Ciudad Juárez were less interested in immigrating to El Paso than in communicating to Americans that the American demand for drugs feeds the murderous cartels in Mexico, making their Juárez into a war zone.

Despite the violence directly south of its city limits, El Paso is one of the safest U.S. cities of its size. That too is a testament to the strength of the current border security apparatus. Yes, operational control of the border can always be improved, but we should acknowledge that there are no limits to the ingenuity of a desperate human being, and that at a certain point "border security" is just political rhetoric.

As long as the fundamental problems of American demand continue to exist, whether for drugs or for cheap labor, there will continue to be smuggling across the border. The "Gang of Eight" bill tries to tackle some of these tough underlying issues, at least with regard to labor. The bill will likely be up for a historic Senate vote this week, and, like thousands of immigration reform advocates, I am holding my breath for 70 "yes" votes. At the same time, I am troubled by how little voice the border residents and the most vulnerable immigrants have had in the reform debate.

Each night in El Paso, after meeting with community leaders, government officials, and advocates, we came home, to the people at the heart of our policy discussions. We were dispirited, feeling personally responsible to help them. The most we could do is share their stories. Until the policymakers with real power to change things take the time to experience the border -- until they too can smell the Pine Sol -- Norma, Cesar, Karina, Carolina, Alma and Sergio will remain faceless victims of political posturing.

Author's note: the names of immigrants have been changed to protect their privacy