SAN DIEGO - “What do you mean I’m out of money?” says the bumper sticker. “I still have checks left!”
In the immigration debate, some folks use the same logic to raise the issue of border security. “What do you mean the border is secure?” they seem to say. “We still have illegal immigrants in the United States.”
For some Americans, a complicated issue really is that simple. They’ll never be convinced that the U.S.-Mexico border is totally secure as long as the phenomenon of illegal immigration continues, and they’ll use their contention that the border isn’t secure as a convenient excuse to oppose comprehensive immigration reform that includes earned legal status for the undocumented.
That’s not fair. It’s like liberal Democrats saying they’ll support tax cuts - as soon as we end poverty in the United States. It’s a way of getting out of doing something you don’t want to do.
By the way, opponents of reform should put their cards on the table and list the real reasons they object to the idea of allowing illegal immigrants to remain in the United States. My guess is that “because the border isn’t secure” wouldn’t make the top 10.
The federal government could go for broke and build a 2,000-mile-long and 20-foot-high wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, deploy 10,000 National Guard troops, and station enough Border Patrol agents so they stand shoulder to shoulder on the front line. And none of these things would convince the critics. Outraged citizens would still call into talk radio shows or post angry comments on websites declaring the border unsecure and citing as evidence the fact that there are still illegal immigrants living and working on this side.
Meanwhile, politicians would still try to exploit the issue of border security for their own gain.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who has gotten much more than her 15 minutes out of the immigration issue, is now starring in a YouTube video. Standing at the U.S.-Mexico border, she demands of President Obama: “Do your job. Secure our borders.”
And Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl is walking back from irresponsible comments he made to constituents where he claimed that Obama, in a private meeting at the White House, told him that “if we secure the border, then (Republicans) won’t have any reason to support comprehensive immigration reform.” The White House denied Kyl’s account, and the senator now says his comments were “taken a bit out of context.”
Let’s cut to the chase. Securing the border to prevent the entry of additional illegal immigrants is one thing; removing those who are already here is another.
Fortunately, some people who pay attention to the immigration debate have figured out that the opponents of comprehensive reform are playing rhetorical games and dealing in bad faith, and they’re calling them on it.
They include Tom Barry, director of the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., who recently told The Arizona Republic that the demand for a completely secure border is a ploy by those opposed to immigration reform to prevent a change in policy.
“No matter how much enforcement you have,” Barry said, “there will always be people coming through. Since that is true, opponents to immigration reform will always be able to say the border is still not secure … and therefore we cannot pass immigration reform.”
They also include Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. During a recent speech in Denver to the annual convention of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Napolitano accused members of Congress who advocate for a more secure border of “moving the goalposts.” Napolitano insists that the border is more secure than ever, a claim mocked by immigration restrictionists. But she has also figured out that when critics say, “secure” the border, what they really mean is to completely “seal” the border.
Napolitano is right on the money. The proponents of border security are moving the goalposts. And they’ll keep moving them as long as its serves them politically. She’s also right that “secure” means “seal.” And here’s why it matters: One of those things can be accomplished, but the other can’t. We can secure the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border with more personnel and equipment. But we’ll never be able to totally seal it.
The determined and the desperate will always get through as long as there are people waiting to hire them. Until we confront - boldly and honestly - this part of the problem, we’re going to continue to have a problem.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist and editorial board member at the San Diego Union Tribune. He offers new thinking on major issues, especially thorny questions involving ethnicity and national origin.