The citizenship ambitions of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US could rest on a fight over the definition of what constitutes a secure border, experts predict.
Barack Obama, in a milestone speech on immigration reform on Tuesday, echoed Republicans' tough language on border enforcement. But he did not go as far as a demand by a bipartisan group of senators that the US border be declared secure before people who are in the US illegally be given a "path to citizenship".
Those senators argue that a commission be set up to rule on whether the border is secure before a single undocumented immigrant is given a chance to move towards a fully legal status. Obama's failure to endorse explicitly that demand has already raised suspicions among Republicans.
Marco Rubio, a prominent Latino senator and one of the eight who set out their own proposals a day earlier, warned the president not to ignore his party's concerns about border security. "I think that would be a terrible mistake," Rubio told Fox News. "We have a bipartisan group of senators that have agreed to that. For the president to try to move the goalposts on that specific requirement, as an example, does not bode well in terms of what his role's going to be in this or the outcome." He added: "If that's not in the bill, I won't support it."
Senator Jeff Flake, a newly elected Republican senator for the border state of Arizona, echoed Rubio's demand for a clear statement from an independent commission on border security. "This provision is key to ensuring that border security is achieved, and is also necessary to ensure that a reform package can actually move through Congress," he said in remarks quoted by Reuters.
The question of what constitutes a secure border is likely to be be crucial in determining the success of the latest plans to reform what is widely accepted to be a "broken" immigration system.
A framework set out by the bipartisan "gang of eight" senators on Monday talks about the need to "prevent, detect and apprehend every entry". But Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications at the Migration Policy Institute, said it would be impossible to meet that demand literally. "If it has to reach a point where there are zero illegal entrants – that is just not achievable," she said. "No police force could guarantee on an annual basis that there would be zero homicides or zero crimes of violence."
The demands for "enforcement first" stem from previous attempts at immigration reform. But despite the implicit suggestion that border security is lax, the opposite is true.
The number of border control agents has doubled in six years, and there has been a massive increase in federal spending on enforcement. Last month, a report by the Migration Policy Institute, Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The rise of a Formidable Machinery, found that the Obama administration spent $18bn on immigration enforcement last year, significantly more than its spending on all the other major federal law enforcement agencies combined.
"We've sketched a dramatic transformation of the immigration enforcement system since 1986," said Mittelstadt. She said it had reached a "level unparalleled in this country's history".
Obama noted in his speech on Tuesday that the "tide of illegal immigrants" from Mexico had been stemmed by increased border security. "We put more boots on the ground on the southern border than at any time in our history. And today, illegal crossings are down nearly 80% from their peak in 2000," he said. Obama also noted that deportations of criminals "is at its highest level ever".
But Thad Bingel, who was chief of staff, US Customs and Border Protection from 2005 to 2009, said the legacy of the last overhaul over the immigration laws, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, had created a generation sceptical of reform without border control.
"Even although we've seen significant progress, there's a recognition from the senators that the public need to be convinced that we have not done enough. I agree with that. You need to assure people." He agreed with the senators' proposal on how to define border security. "They want to have a commission made up of attorney generals, governors and leaders of the border states, and that makes sense. The sticking part will be the membership of that commission and what its powers are."
Bingel cited a doubling of border patrol agents, from 10,000 in 2004 to 21,000 today as one of many recent improvements. There had also been a drop in the number of people apprehended for attempting to cross the border illegally, from about one million a year in 2000 to 327,000 in 2011. "That is significant progress. But the debate now is what will be an acceptable number," he said.
He said that border security has a different meaning today, pointing out that 50% of those who are in the US illegally had entered the country legally, but overstayed their visas. That posed different challenges: "You need a mix of things, including technology on the border itself, employment verification and an exit control system on land, looking at documents that can be scanned when someone leaves the country."
Bingel also said border security had become more dangerous. "It's a different battle now. Because the border had become more difficult to cross, we have seen an increase in criminal organisations using more violent tactics to defeat border security. Organisations that used to smuggle narcotics have diversified into people smuggling. You need a different set of tools."
Mittelstadt, of the Migration Policy Institute, said that the answer to the question of border security was not more enforcement but to look at where the gaps were. "More enforcement of the existing system will not yield results. There continue to be gaps and one is in employment enforcement. What is needed is to address those gaps."
Mittelstadt welcomed the framework set out by the bipartisan group of eight senators as a "significant breakthrough". But she added: "It is, however, just a framework. There remains the filling in of details between the document and the legislative text."
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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