U.S. Border Czar Calls on Congress to Get Serious about Immigration Reform

While some candidates continue to make political fodder out of immigration and border security on the campaign trail, administration officials are pushing Congress to get real about overhauling our broken immigration system. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner, Alan Bersin, recently commented that Congress needs to ‘get serious about a post-election immigration overhaul if the nation is to deal with the duality of enforcing border security while facilitating trade.’ In the wake of the nation’s SB1070-inspired border frenzy, some may be surprised to learn that there’s more to immigration than targeting undocumented immigrants and securing the border. A big part of Bersin’s job also involves regulating the flow of trade and commerce across the border, as well as expediting travel—priorities that tend to get lost in empty debate over who’s the toughest on undocumented immigration.

Last week at the Migration Policy Institute, border czar Alan Bersin commented that we need to expand the immigration debate beyond enforcement rhetoric to address other policy areas:

In truth, neither mass amnesty nor mass deportations will solve a problem that’s rooted in labor markets, which is why President Obama has shown a “fierce determination to stop kicking the can down the road” and supported a bipartisan proposal presented by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., last spring, as well as legislation (S 3932) Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., introduced shortly before the pre-election recess.

These legislative proposals would take immigration to a place it failed to go after the 1986 overhaul (PL 99-603), which provided a path to citizenship but failed to confront illegal immigration, Bersin said. Since then, the immigration debate has centered on control and enforcement — a focus that magnified exponentially after Sept. 11, Bersin said. But, he added, enforcement and normalization cannot succeed without appropriate coordination with other policy.

Bersin’s comments echo what many immigration experts have been saying for months—that enforcement-first, border-only approach to immigration is not a winning strategy…that we need to overhaul our entire immigration system. Back in June, Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano made similar statements regarding reform, border security, and trade:

The plain fact of the matter is the border is as secure now as it’s ever been… the notion that you’re going to somehow seal the border and only at that point will you discuss immigration reform, that is not an answer to the problem … recognizing also that there’s a lot of trade and commerce we want going back and forth.

Former DHS Assistant Secretary for Border and Transportation Security Policy, Stewart Verdery, also pointed out that securing the border is an elusive goal, and that without comprehensive immigration reform, we will never achieve the real objectives needed to end illegal immigration.

seth hoySo what will the immigration narrative be like after mid-term elections? More of the same go-nowhere enforcement-only rhetoric which completely ignores other policy areas like commerce and trade? Or perhaps we can expect a more nuanced approach—one that looks at economic, labor-driven and administrative realities of our immigration system? If the last few months are any indicator, however, I’m not going to hold my breath.

Seth Hoy

Republished with permission from Immigration Impact.

Photo by sayanythingblog


  1. marshall says

    What makes me think that any new law, other than free entry, would be enforced when none of the older laws on this subject have been enforced to the full letter of the law? All of our federal governments have been using the pick and choose method so far.

    • MdeG says

      That’s not what’s been going on at all, Marshall. Nobody decided that laws about immigration should be selected for non-enforcement.

      Part of the problem is that the laws are unenforceable. The formal immigration system as it exists now basically works only for the wealthy, the educated, and those with family members already inside the US. Anyone without these factors — which basically means anyone with an economic motive for migration — is effectively barred from the formal system. This, plus the fact that US foreign policy and “free” trade agreements have done profound damage to neighboring countries, mean that there are a large number of desperate people who can see no alternative to migration without documents. No solution will really work unless it addresses the need for economic autonomy and grassroots development in other American countries.

      Another part of the problems is that immigration enforcement, post IRCA, post IIRAIRA, and post 9/11, is far outside the principles of the Constitution. The knock on the door in the middle of the night is a reality for some of my neighbors, and I am not comforted by that fact. “Papers please” is a real fear for some people I see every day. I’m not safer because of that. And if people who don’t have their papers in order are picked up, they go into a detention system where Constitutional rights to habeas, representation, appeal, and due process are all but nonexistent. It can take weeks for family members to find someone who’s been detained.

      This crazy system is the *reason* that many folks don’t have documents. 40% of the undocumented came in with visas. The US keeps saying it’s going to install a system to check out the folks who come on tourist visas. Never happened. Administrative messups and legal irrationality have caused many perfectly lawful immigrants to lose status, through no fault of their own. More repression won’t help that.

      What might help: Enforce the wage and hour laws. If anyone’s interested in having a large available pool of workers without rights, it’s corporations. They use foreign born labor as something shockingly close to chattel slaves — and they violate existing law by doing it. Bust *them* and you’ll have part of a solution.

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