The Senate immigration reform compromise aims to get tough on border security. The proposed 13-year "pathway to citizenship" isn't even supposed to kick in until the Department of Homeland Security comes up with a plan for the U.S.-Mexico border.
Fat chance, says Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. He's skeptical of promises about new border security measure embodied in the Senate immigration bill, which was negotiated by political odd fellows Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), among others, with the tacit approval of the Obama administration.
Neither side is serious about securing the southern border, Mehlman said, pointing to previous efforts that have fallen short. Exhibit A is the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which authorized 700 miles of fencing along the Mexican border. The law says "the Secretary of Homeland Security shall provide for least 2 layers of reinforced fencing, the installation of additional physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras and sensors" at five specific stretches of border.
But the Homeland Security Department, under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, neglected to follow through on implementing the law.
"What has the Department of Homeland Security been doing for all these years?" Mehlman said. "Delivering on homeland security is sort of inherent in the title of the department. None of these promises were ever delivered on."
But those pushing more lenient immigration laws say there's already plenty of enforcement at the southern border. The focus should instead by on naturalizing undocumented folks in the country, without whom the U.S. economy would collapse.
"We're going to see an expansion of the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border," said Fernando Garcia of Border Network for Human Rights. "We're really questioning this border trigger process."
The border has been made more secure under administrations of both parties, Garcia suggested.
"There were 7,000 border patrol agents 20 years ago, to now 22,000 border patrol agents now," he said.
And Garcia has a different take on the Homeland Security Department's efforts to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. To grease bipartisan support the last time immigration reform came up seriously in Congress, the department proactively put in place a multi-year border enforcement plan.
"In the 2007 discussion there were a number of benchmarks and triggers established," Garcia said. "In 2013 we have actually met those triggers and gone beyond. Now they're telling us they want to move the goalposts again?"
From a different perspective, Mehlman agrees that enforcement-only is the wrong way to go about immigration reform.
A better approach, he said, would be to eliminate incentives for people to be in the United States illegally. That includes those sneaking across the Mexican border, and others who overstay temporary visas, which immigration experts estimate account for about 40 percent of the illegal population.
Border security "is feasible only if we eliminate a lot of the reasons why people come across that border in the first place," Mehlman said. "Illegal immigrants are very rational people. They know tuition for illegals is waiting in many states. And they know there is often poor coordination between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. So it's worth taking a chance on."
Democrats and Republicans in Washington both bear responsibility for the problem, Mehlman said.
"They're absolutely both complicit. Democrats and ethnic interest groups get a lot of publicity. But it is groups like the Chamber of Commerce who provide the big money when it comes to lobbying. They want access to lower-cost labor."