When the discussion about securing the border started five years ago, it was tied to national security concerns. In the midst of a global war against Islamic terrorists, it seemed unwise to many to leave our long borders with Mexico and Canada unmanned and undefended for much of their length.
Some of the concerns were prompted by Ahmed Ressam, the attempted Millennium bomber from 1999, who attempted to enter the U.S. from Canada where he had refugee status. Ressam, an Algerian, was arrested by alert border guards in Washington state.
There have long been similar worries about terrorist groups seeking to enter the U.S. through Mexico. A 2003 report by the Library of Congress Federal Research Division noted that a Mexican national security advisor and U.N. ambassador had stated “Spanish and Islamic terrorist groups are using Mexico as a refuge.” These fears may have come close to realization recently. On October 11, 2011 the U.S. government reported that it had disrupted a plot by the Iranian government to use Mexican narco-terrorists to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C.
While the threat is real, the Republican reaction is misguided. The “secure the borders” movement quickly turned into an anti-immigrant movement in some quarters. Illegal aliens were portrayed as people who snuck across the border to take American jobs and government benefits. Harsh rhetoric allowed the left to paint Republicans as racist and may have helped to tip the scales toward Obama in the 2008 election when Hispanics voted Democratic by more than two-to-one. That image was reinforced when a handful of states, including Georgia, passed state laws to further restrict illegal immigration in response to a perceived failure of the federal government to address the problem.
In reality the federal government began cracking down on the hiring of illegal immigrants under the Bush Administration. Under President Obama, the federal government has deported over one million illegal immigrants, almost as many as during George Bush’s two terms according to Reuters.
Further, as the economy crashed and jobs disappeared, illegal immigration began to disappear as well. CNN reports that arrests of illegal immigrants at the border dropped by 58 percent between 2006 and 2011. This was largely due to fact that the economy and increased numbers of border patrol agents deterred would-be immigrants from attempting to cross the border in the first place.
Now the effects of these policies are becoming evident. Georgia farmers were short by as many as two-thirds of their normal number of hired hands according to the Atlanta Journal. Farmers attempted to replace immigrant labor with unemployed local workers but had little luck because the work was temporary, hot, and physically demanding. Some farmers resorted to paying signing bonuses to pickers. Farmers in California, Idaho, Oklahoma, Washington, Vermont and Alabama have similar problems.
A recent Wall Street Journal article cites a University of Georgia study which found that Georgia lost $391 million and 3,260 full-time jobs that were dependent upon the crops harvested by the illegal immigrant laborers. These jobs were in industries such as food production, packaging and transportation. Factcheck.org cites several studies that show that immigrants – legal and illegal – create as many jobs as they occupy and actually have an upward impact on the wages of American citizens.
Nevertheless, in the Republican debates immigration remains a big issue even though illegal immigration is on the decline. The preoccupation with illegal immigrants may cost the Republicans the votes of many conservative Hispanics who would otherwise vote against President Obama and his failed economic initiatives.
Republican candidates should refocus the debate toward national security and away from the otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants. Like the ancestors of most natural-born U.S. citizens, immigrants, legal or otherwise, merely want to come to the United States to make better lives for themselves. Many come from countries where there are even fewer jobs than in the U.S. and where the political climate is one in which policy debates turn violent easily and often.
Waves of anti-immigrant opinion have periodically swept through America. At one time or another, the Irish, the Catholics, the Chinese, Japanese, Eastern Europeans and others have found cold receptions in the U.S. These immigrants gradually gained acceptance by assimilating into the “melting pot” of cultures. A major problem today is that the diversity movement actually discourages assimilation and promotes maintaining separate cultures.
Much of the anti-immigrant fervor will likely fade as the economy recovers and unemployment declines. This will not resolve the national security issue, however. It is this aspect of the border issue that the Republicans should focus on.
The best solution to the border issue seems to be a multi-faceted solution. In some areas, a fence is needed. In others, where terrain makes a fence impractical, remote sensors can monitor and alert Border Patrol agents to human activity.
The farm situation from 2011 shows that just staunching the flow of illegal immigrants is not enough. The economy has grown dependent upon labor from migrant workers, many of whom are in the country illegally. If these jobs cannot be filled by Americans when the unemployment rate is over nine percent, they likely will not be filled by Americans at all. A similar gap exists with high end, skilled labor jobs where immigrants come to the U.S. to study but have difficulty getting a visa to stay and work after they graduate. These American educated, highly skilled workers often end up working in other countries for companies that compete with American business.
A lesson of the Georgia farm labor fiasco is that restrictions on illegal immigration must be accompanied by immigration reforms that make it easier for workers to come into the U.S. legally. In this situation everyone would win: The foreign workers could earn money to support their families, American employers would have workers, and the government would be able to keep track of who was entering the country. Additionally, this would expand the tax base by bringing the black market wages for illegal immigrant labor into the light.
Attacking immigrants is likely to backfire on Republicans. A better alternative is to propose a revamped immigration system that will bring much needed workers into the U.S. economy while at the same time securing our national borders against terrorists.
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