Immigration Debate: What’s More Important, Border Security Or Protecting Immigrant Workers?

As billions of dollars of legal goods, as well as shipments of drugs and groups of undocumented immigrants continue to cross the U.S. border, immigration reform and border security have become a major topic of discussion. Photo by N. Parish Flannery @LatAmLENS

The immigration debate is under way in the United States. While several prominent Republicans are calling for more focus on border security, Democrats are pushing for a legal pathway to citizenship and a focus on the current reality of the U.S. labor market. In 1970 there were fewer than one million people in the U.S. from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Now the U.S. is home to more than 14 million people from these countries. In recent decades undocumented immigrants have shifted away from specialization in temporary jobs in agriculture in southwest border states and are settling in a diverse array of cities throughout the country and finding work in a variety of economic sectors. At the same time, in recent years drug cartel related violence has spiked in many northern Mexican cities and illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants continue to pass over the border undetected. The reform debate focuses on updating U.S. legislation to account for the current economic and geopolitical reality.

In 2013 construction, manufacturing, meatpacking, food service, and maintenance are major sectors in the U.S. economy and also important employers of immigrant laborers. In 2012 construction spending in the U.S.totaled $857 billion. Builder Jacobs Engineering reported nearly $11 billion in revenue in 2012 and is poised for strong growth in 2013. Construction and maintenance giant Fluor Corporation reported revenues of $27.6 billion in 2012. Meat producer Tyson Foods reported $33 billion in revenue in fiscal 2012. In the U.S. major businesses have a stake in promoting immigration reform as an economic priority.

Doug Oberhelman, Chairman and CEO of Caterpillar, Inc, an Illinois based company that earned $65.9 billion in revenues in 2012, has emerged as a pro-reform advocate. “Providing consistent, reliable access to both high-skilled and low-skilled talent is critical to sustain our nation’s global competitiveness in many industries including healthcare, technology, manufacturing, hospitality, and tourism. We need reform that will provide opportunities for immigrants and foreign students to enter the U.S. and our workforce legally, attracting and keeping the best, the brightest, and the hard working,” heannounced during a recent public event.

In a recent blog, Univision correspondent Fernando Espuelas explains “The Senate bill is a legislative solution that will help grow our economy, create more jobs and bring 11 million people out of the shadows. The bill not only enjoys broad, bipartisan consensus in the Senate, but also has the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the largest employee unions, while businesses from Silicon Valley to the industrial heartland are clamoring for an immigration system that satisfies the real-world needs of an America with aging demographics and anemic economic growth.”

Facebook empresario Mark Zuckerburg, whose company earned $5.1 billion in revenues in 2012 and donates to both Republicans and Democrats, has emerged as a proponent for immigration reform. “This is something that we believe is really important for the future of our country — and for us to do what’s right,” he said.

The proposed bill, to be successful, will need to balance demands from business owners and economic analysts who argue for new channels for legal immigration with the concerns of voters who are worried about border security. The Senate bill calls for the deployment 20,000 border patrol agents and the construction of 700 miles of fencing, at a cost to taxpayers of around $46 billion.

Raul Labrador, a conservative Puerto Rican Republican congressman from Idaho, has voiced his opinion that “You see all the money we’re spending at the border, and the great job these men and women are doing…and they’re still not stopping all the people coming in.”

Political opponents have called Labrador’s security-focused stance a gimmick designed to derail the debate.

Fernando Mejia, immigrant rights director of the Idaho Communicty Action Network, said “Republican Congressmen are slowly but surely backing a pathway to citizenship – not Rep. Labrador’s extreme political gimmick – for good reason: Citizenship is the only real solution that lives up to our country’s values. Mr. Labrador would do well to visit his own state’s immigrant communities, acknowledge their contributions to society and the economy, and join with his Republican colleagues supporting family unity through a pathway to citizenship.”

President Barack Obama recently explained that ”[he is] absolutely confident that if that [Senate] bill was on the floor of the House, it would pass.”

“The challenge right now is not that there aren’t a majority of House members, just like a majority of Senate members, who [are] prepared to support this bill, the problem is internal Republican caucus politics,” headded.

Although a handful of Republicans continue to call for more fencing and patrolmen, some politicians in Texas wish that people involved in the immigration debate would pay more attention to their views on cross-border commerce and border security issues.

U.S. Congressman Pete Gallego, a Democrat who represents the 23rd district of Texas explained, “Those of us who live along the border want to be just as safe and secure in our beds as anyone else does, but we want a solution that works.”

“We don’t want a political solution, we want a practical solution,” he added.

For many border residents, immigration reform needs to balance security issues with economic reality.

“One of the frustrations that people along the border have is so many people who are trying to drive the debate on border policy and border security are people who don’t live on the border, who’ve never been to the border, and yet they’re trying to dictate the terms by which we do border security,” Gallegosaid.

In an excellent article for The National Journal politics writer Elahe Izadi explains that “In 2012, the Border Patrol apprehended 21,720 illegal immigrants in the Del Rio sector, the highest number in the sector since 2007 and much higher than the El Paso sector’s 9,678 apprehensions.”

According to some residents, while illegal border crossings are a fact of life, fears about cartel violence spilling over the border have been overblown in the media. Proposals for heavy militarization along the Rio Grande look overzealous to some residents. While many residents might welcome an influx of federal spending, they are skeptical of the claims about security risks.

Galllego explained, “If you’re telling me you’re going to [hire more patrolmen and] double the number of government jobs in my community and if you’re going to allow these people to contribute to the economy, they’re going to eat out at restaurants and shop at stores and buy homes—from an economic development perspective, I’m for that. But that’s not a border-security perspective.”

Texas State Representative Poncho Nevarez, a Democrat whose house abuts the Rio Grande river, said that on the national stage, politicians “use the border, they see the area as a sword and a shield in politics, but we’re human beings, we live down here.”

“We shouldn’t be pawns in this game to see who can get themselves elected because they can beat their chest more about how they secured the border,” Nevarez added.

Laura Allen, the Republican county judge in Val Verde County Texasexplained, ”Ask me when was the last time we had to shut down our bridge because violence spilled over from Mexico. It’s not happening.”

Shawn Moran, the vice president of National Border Patrol Council, a union representing Border Patrol agents explained that most “people coming here, even if they’re coming here illegally, they’re coming here to work in agriculture or construction. But there is a large group that is coming here to sell drugs or be part of criminal gangs and commit crimes. We shouldn’t overlook that in any sort of immigration reform.”

But, many observers think that security goals and economic goals can be addressed at the same time by expanding investment in infrastructure along the border. More than one billion dollars worth of goods cross the U.S.-Mexico border every day. Current infrastructure shortfalls have led long delays at many border crossings.

According to Ramsey English Cantu, the mayor of Eagle Pass, Texas “We continue to see ports of entries where people are smuggling drugs across because there isn’t the necessary infrastructure. These are the things that need to be ultimately addressed.”

Residents are especially skeptical of spending on fencing. “The fence was not a good thing,” Allen said. “We would have liked to see that money put to use for other things because, like I said, I can very easily show you where people walk around it, so why did we spend all that money?” she added.

In her article for The National Journal Izadi explains “Between 2006 and 2009, the federal government allocated $2.4 billion for construction of 670 miles of pedestrian and vehicular fences, with costs ranging between $400,000 and $15.1 million per mile.”

But, according to border patrol rep Moran, “no fence is going to stop people who are determined to get into this country. You can’t have a fence with gaps if you want it to be effective.”

Many residents in border towns feel that a security-focused approach to immigration ignores their cultural and economic ties with cities across the border in Mexico.

“If we take this militia approach to our border, what kind of message are we sending to our sister country? I don’t like that message,” Allen explained.

“Would we do that on the border with Canada? I really don’t feel like we would,” she said.

About the author

Ruby Powers

The child of a Mexican immigrant, Powers gravitated toward an international life by later marrying a Turkish immigrant. Having lived and studied in Belgium, Mexico, Turkey, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates, Powers speaks Spanish, French, and a hint of Turkish. With a passion for service and justice coupled with cultural understanding and an interest for immigrants, Powers dedicates her law practice to immigration law.

Posted on by Ruby Powers in Deportation, immigration bill, Immigration Trends, Legislative Reform

Add a Comment

Facebook

YouTube

LinkedId