Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) this past weekend delivered a stunning array of patently mistaken or obviously disingenuous arguments aimed at denigrating President Barack Obama’s immigration enforcement record and denying the need for comprehensive reform. Such falsehoods should not go uncorrected, so let’s expose Rep. Smith’s six main canards.
First, Smith and many of his Republican colleagues falsely claim that it is the will of the American people, not congressional Republicans, that has stymied immigration reform. This flies in the face of obstructionist votes by Republicans in Congress that have blocked reform over the past five years as well as polling of the American public that demonstrates overwhelming support for comprehensive reform over the same period. So let’s set the record straight.
In the 109th Congress, House Republican leaders used their extreme, anti-immigrant legislation known as the Sensenbrenner bill to block the Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill from becoming law in 2006. The Sensenbrenner bill, named after its primary author, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), would have made felons of every undocumented immigrant as well as all of the service providers and faith leaders that assist or counsel them. Then in the 110th Congress, Senate Republicans backpedaled from their prior support for immigration reform out of fear of primary challenges from the radical right, depriving the Senate of the votes needed to send a bill to the House. In the 111th Congress (2009-2010), Sen. Graham (R-SC) could not get a single Republican to join him in negotiating a bipartisan bill, thereby spelling the demise of the effort.
Meanwhile, an incredibly consistent array of polling by a variety of polling firms over the past four years continues to show that Americans of all political stripes support tough, fair, and practical solutions that include requiring undocumented immigrants to register, undergo background checks, pay taxes, learn English, and go to the back of the line. Most recently, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 72 percent of all Americans support creating a path to citizenship for eligible undocumented workers. Indisputably, congressional Republicans have thwarted, not upheld, the will of the American people.
Second, an argument by Smith and his conservative colleagues mistakenly conflates any solution for undocumented immigrants short of mass deportation with “amnesty.” Most people, however, don’t believe that being required to pay a fine, pay back taxes, learn English, and go to the end of the line equals amnesty. The purveyors of the amnesty argument falsely intimate that undocumented immigrants will get a free path to automatic citizenship. But under the most generous bills that have been introduced in past years, the earliest an undocumented immigrant could earn citizenship would be 12 years after bill enactment. The proposal that Senate Republicans blocked in 2007 would have required a considerably longer delay.
Third, no anti-immigrant argument is more stale than Smith’s assertion that a legalization program will lead to more undocumented immigration. This fiction misinterprets illegal immigration patterns since the last legalization in 1986. In the years immediately following the enactment of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, or IRCA, the nation saw a greater decline in unlawful entries than ever before. Significant undocumented immigration only commenced again when the economy started to catch fire in 1994.
Smith speciously draws a causal nexus between the 1986 legalization and today’s large undocumented population. He bases it not on evidence but on a Pavlovian theory: that rewarding unlawful behavior encourages more unlawful behavior. Even setting aside the obvious fact that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants make the perilous journey to the United States to work grueling jobs to improve their lot, not in anticipation of future legal status, the less-tortured explanation for the current population is that the 1986 law failed to create new legal channels for future economic migrants. The lack of a functional legal system to regulate our integrated labor market combined with an inadequate enforcement infrastructure led to our current dysfunction, not a conditioned disposition towards law breaking based on a legalization that occurred before many of today’s border crossers were even born.
More to the point, Smith’s argument that past is prologue intentionally ignores (1) the enforcement developments since 1986 that have profoundly transformed today’s migration context, and (2) the substance of current legislative proposals that will make these enforcement programs even more effective. To wit:
- Over the past 18 years, we have built more border security infrastructure and deployed more border security personnel than ever in the nation’s history—the difference between now and then is night and day.
- We have a dramatically larger and better-equipped interior enforcement agency than ever before—again, a stark difference from 1986.
- All comprehensive reform proposals today would require the enforcement agency to roll out an electronic employment verification system, making it easier to prevent future illegal hiring.
- All comprehensive reform proposals also recognize that we need to create more flexible legal channels to match workforce needs, thereby funneling would-be economic migrants into legal channels and making illegal immigration that much more unappealing.
Then there is Smith’s fourth and perhaps most remarkable misstatement: He rejects the claim that the border is more secure than ever before. Relying on a GAO report concluding that the Department of Homeland Security has 44 percent of the southern border under “operational control,” Smith assigns the agency a failing grade. This simplistic analysis likewise ignores the basic facts. The GAO report measured operational control against DHS’s own basic standard: “the ability to detect, respond, and interdict border penetrations in areas deemed as high priority for threat potential.” This is in contrast to Congress’s own impossible standard of an absolute seal against human or contraband border crossings—something akin to holding the NYC police commissioner to a zero-crime standard.
But it also is in contrast to the more flexible, risk-based standard that DHS now employs to provide a more accurate picture of different levels of control. DHS levels include “controlled,” “managed,” “monitored,” and “low-level monitored.” The reason: The agency wisely devotes more intensive resources to areas where the threats are greatest. The agency should be resourced to “detect, respond, and interdict” incursions in high-threat, high-traffic areas. Similarly, it’s a waste of resources to establish that same level of control in remote areas with inhospitable terrain where very few individuals are crossing.
More importantly, that GAO report and every other report that has been done negate the very claim that Smith is making. They all demonstrate that enforcement resources deployed at the border are historic in both size and effectiveness. The ability to observe, intercept, and impose consequences on border crossers and smugglers has never remotely approached today’s levels.
Fifth, Smith willfully misstates that worksite enforcement efforts have dropped precipitously under the Obama administration. He has to know that’s not true because the numbers speak for themselves. Smith may not like it that the administration has made it a priority to go after employers rather than conduct SWAT-style raids on workers. And, in fact, he has waffled between praising the administration’s expansion of employer audits as effective and then condemning them as insufficient. Either way, worksite enforcement audits have resulted in 180 employers being charged with criminal violations related to unlawful hiring following more than 2,200 audits in fiscal year 2010. Penalties resulting from these audits totaled nearly $43 million. These are huge increases, not decreases, over the Bush administration.
Sixth, without a shred of evidence to bolster his claim, Smith maintains that the Obama administration can improve the economy and create jobs by deporting undocumented workers who are here. A wide array of economic analyses by economists on the left and the right belie this assertion. The Center for American Progress’s economic report, which closely mirrors a study by the conservative CATO Institute, demonstrates that comprehensive immigration reform will increase cumulative U.S. gross domestic product by $1.5 trillion over 10 years, add billions in revenue to the U.S. Treasury, and create jobs.
The mass deportation alternative posited by Smith and others will have precisely the opposite effect by creating a gaping hole in the economy to the tune of $2.6 trillion over 10 years. And that doesn’t include the massive cost (which we place at approximately $285 billion over five years) to the government of implementing such a policy—which is amazing in its own right coming from supposed small-government Republicans.
Smith and his restrictionist colleagues seem to hope that by repeating these canards, people may eventually believe them. But they aren’t fooling the American public; they are just singing to their base. Sadly, in the process, these deportation-only proponents are standing in the way of enhanced border security and increased economic growth. They are blocking enactment of additional layers of control that would funnel migrants into a legal system and restore the rule of law by requiring undocumented immigrants to register, pay taxes, and earn status.
We need to put to rest this false narrative that serves an ideological perspective while blocking the will of the American people. Enough with the soundbites already. Americans want solutions to fix, once and for all, our broken immigration system.
Marshall Fitz is Director of Immigration Policy at American Progress.