Loading icon

Fear and Loathing on the Border

News & Features | November 3, 2014

Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown, a Tufts alumnus, wants to close the southern border to prevent the spread of Ebola and the brutal jihadist group Islamic State (ISIS), which is based nearly 7,000 miles away.

“We have a border that’s so porous that anyone can walk across it,” Brown told New Hampshire’s WGIR radio in October. “I think it’s naive to think that people aren’t going to be walking through here who have those types of diseases or other types of intent, criminal or terrorist. And yet we do nothing to secure our border. It’s dangerous.”

G.O.P. Senate candidate Tom Cotton took it a step further. He has claimed that ISIS is collaborating with Mexican drug cartels to infiltrate the border. Their target? Arkansas.

Similarly, Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) shared a tip from “a confidential border patrol source” in an appearance on Fox News. “I know that at least ten ISIS fighters have been caught coming across the Mexican border into Texas,” Hunter said.

His solution? Close the border.

For years, the debate over immigration has dragged on, sometimes flirting with resolution, but always chock full o’ fear. The latest foreign crises have added tension to the tired talking points, but it is still an afterglow of the George W. Bush administration.

Before Ebola and ISIS dominated cable news cycles, this summer’s headlines were full of news about the thousands of unaccompanied child immigrants who suddenly appeared in the United States, dazed after long journeys from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. Immigration courts were backed up around the country, and the kids were locked in Spartan holding pens. The Department of Health and Human Services struggled to find homes for them, while an overburdened system attempted to follow the requisite procedures to determine if the children were eligible for asylum, and to advise them on their legal options.

It has become obvious that the government’s slow and disorganized response to the situation was a result of Bush-era immigration legislation. Shortly before the end of Bush’s presidency, Congress unanimously passed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. Designed to prevent human trafficking, it stipulated that decisions about minors arriving from Mexico and Canada could be made directly by Border Patrol officers, because the immigrants could be directly transferred to officials from their home country. Minors arriving from other countries however, had to be handed over to Health and Human Services to find housing and then enter a legal advice process. This takes much longer, and is largely responsible for slowing the Obama administration’s response to this summer’s crisis.

In response, Obama requested that the process for Mexican and Canadian minors be extended to Guatemalans, Hondurans, and El Salvadorans to allow for a faster process.

This is certainly not the first call for immigration reform made recently. Politicians on one side of the aisle have been calling for increased border security and stronger enforcement of laws regulating undocumented workers. On the other side, people have been advocating asylum for immigrants coming from war-torn countries, and policies to help those who came here as children and now want an education. On the state level, there have been calls for legislation to protect undocumented workers from abuse by their bosses. Regardless, it is clear that immigration reform is long overdue.

In June 2013, improvements seemed possible when the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, or S. 744. Considered a step toward comprehensive immigration reform, the bill was drafted by a bipartisan group of eight senators including John McCain. It outlined a path for 11 million immigrants to eventually obtain legal status. Elements of the 2001 DREAM Act were included, and the number of visas available to workers and foreign graduates of US institutions was increased.

But before these things could go into effect, some said that increased security measures on the border would have to be completed. The bill then moved to the House, where it has sat for almost a year and half, untouched. Why did a bill with so much bipartisan support come to a grinding halt?

Initially, Speaker of the House John Boehner claimed he refused to bring the bill to a vote because of the revenue increases it called for. He said that the House would draft and vote on its own bill, presumably to be reconciled with the Senate version in a joint committee. No such bill was drafted, however.

Outside of the party leadership, some Republicans have expressed concern that the Obama administration would not do a good job enforcing the bill. They have argued that no reform should be passed until a new administration comes into office. Senate Democrats have countered by offering to delay the law from going into effect until 2017, but there have still been no moves to bring the Senate version to vote or to create a House version of the bill.

Some say that Republican Congressmen are concerned that they will lose the support of their districts if illegal immigrants living in them are given a path to citizenship, and then vote Democratic, particularly in border states like Texas. In that sense, the House’s refusal to consider immigration reform may be preventing change in the political makeup of Congressional districts—change that could harm Republicans, who will likely face a challenging national race in 2016, even if they regain the Senate in this year’s midterms. Critics say the bill has also suffered from the Republican tendency to deny President Obama and the Democrats any political capital.

Obama has stated that he will take executive action to enact as many reforms as possible if Congress refuses to do so—similar to the executive action he has taken to ask states to stop closing their borders because of Ebola fears. He commissioned a report on possible immigration action from the Homeland Secretary this summer. No report has been delivered, however, and Obama is now reportedly waiting until after the midterm elections to take action.

For now, there seems to be little hope of immigration reform in Congress. Perhaps the situation will change after the midterm elections, but progress through executive action looks more likely than any Congressional movement at the moment. Meanwhile, millions of undocumented immigrants remain in limbo.