Back to the basics on immigration

With reform push stalled, it's time to focus on fundamentals--and explore how the issue looks from across the border

AUSTIN, TX — As Congress careens toward its annual August recess, the fate of immigration reform is unresolved. House Republicans have made clear that they won’t support the major bill passed last month by the Senate, but whether “comprehensive” reform will ultimately be allowed to clear the House with Democratic support, or House conservatives will pass a smaller set of bills—or whether the legislative push will die altogether—remains up in the air. All we know for sure is that we likely won’t know the endgame anytime soon.

So the dog days of summer and early fall, before Congress gets back to work, are a good time for journalists here in Texas and around the country to revisit some basics of the immigration debate—and to take a new look at how shifting economic realities may be affecting attitudes toward immigration on the other side of the border.

Here are a few lenses through which to advance the story, and some links to helpful coverage, while Congress, and its laborious legislative machinery, is on break:

History. So far, the 2013 immigration debate is shaping up not unlike the 2006 debate—which, indeed, went nowhere. A comprehensive Senate bill including a path to citizenship passed that body, only to be rejected in the House—where the stirrings of conservative activism, bolstered by right-wing talk radio, led Republicans to focus exclusively on border security. Both chambers spent months trying to work out a compromise only to run out of time as a new Congress was elected in 2006. A difference this time? No congressional election this year and no year-end deadline. In addition, at least some Republicans now fear that not doing something will have fatal political consequences among Hispanic voters, as Ron Brownstein of the National Journal noted in his detailed retrospective early this year.

Of course, there’s also another historical precedent—1986, when a major reform bill with an “amnesty” provision did become law. Brownstein’s National Journal colleague Fawn Johnson took a look at the parallels in a May piece that explored how conservatives feel burned by that experience, which was followed by higher rates of unauthorized migration. Brad Plumer’s earlier explainer for The Washington Post’s Wonkblog offers a particularly good, easy-to-read look at why the 1986 bill didn’t work quite as intended—and why the results might be different this time around.

Politics. Both major political parties have political motives at stake here, and an examination of them is most definitely in order. Most of the coverage has dwelled on the choice facing Republicans: “reach out” to Hispanics with whom the party is losing ground, or double down on the conservative white voters who increasingly form the GOP’s base? If House Republicans do manage to pass a smaller bill that offers some benefit to immigrants, though, the tricky decision—take half a loaf, or hold out for a path to citizenship?—shifts to Democrats.

But there are plenty of rich political stories at the local level, too. Are members of Congress in or out of line with local polling? Are they taking money from activist groups on either side of the debate? Do they have bigger ambitions that color their actions on the issue? How are they navigating conflicting pressures from business, voters, and advocates?

Ashley Parker of The New York Times recently came to Texas to cover how one of the not-quite-hardliners in the House GOP, Blake Fahrenthold, is walking that line in one of the few Republican districts with a substantial Hispanic population.

Meanwhile, at Texas Monthly Nate Blakeslee dissected the performance of a Lone State State politician charting a different course: Sen. Ted Cruz, who broke with a long tradition of statewide Republicans who have been moderates on immigration to oppose the Senate bill. Why? Presidential ambitions, concludes Blakeslee. He adds:

Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada, and whose father emigrated from Cuba, is not himself a product of that tradition, and he seems, at times, to be espousing positions that are disconnected from the reality that Texans know well. Take, for instance, his complaint that the Gang of Eight proposal doesn’t do enough to secure the border. Of all the misconceptions distorting the current debate over immigration reform, this is the costliest, literally speaking.

Security. That brings us to another rich topic—the endless debate over just how much security is enough along the increasingly militarized U.S.-Mexico border, a subject that offers plenty of opportunities to scrutinize political rhetoric and follow the money. The Austin American-Statesman’s PolitiFact Texas project—which, alongside the main PolitiFact entrerprise, is doing a fine job rating the truthfulness of various politicians’ claims—recently examined President Obama’s boasts about border security.

Other journalists have taken a look at how steady demands for more border security—and reform advocates’ willingness to accede to them—amount to dollar signs for big contractors. The Washington Post’s Matea Gold got behind the $46 billion in border security proposed by the Senate to uncover a wish list of helicopters, drones, databases and more, many being sold by top defense companies making up for lost business over at the Pentagon. San Antonio Express-News columnist O. Ricardo Pimental noted the parallels between the border build-up and Congress’s appetite for even unwanted defense spending, and wryly commented: “There used to be a pejorative for that—profiteering.” And back in May, The Arizona Republic’s Bob Ortega did a good job of examining the consequences of $106 billion in border spending over the past five years. The results? Illegal crossings in the Tucson sector are down over 90 percent, but smuggling—guns headed south and drugs headed north—is actually up.

Oh, and some more context for the security debate: Remember SBINet, an integrated system of sensors, drones, and databases conceived during the 2006 debate, to be managed by Boeing to the tune of $8 billion? Well, it had to be shut down by the Department of Homeland Security in 2011 as a colossal and expensive failure.

Economics. The effect of immigration on wages is a famously controversial subject, but the prevailing view among academic researchers is that new immigration actually boosts real wages for almost everyone—except earlier immigrants. (Here’s Wonkblog’s Dylan Matthews on that issue.) And the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of the Senate bill—rendered in colorful infographic form by the Houston Chronicle—concluded that comprehensive reform would improve the federal government’s finances, even with those security costs accounted for.

Another study, from the left-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, concluded that legalization of existing unauthorized immigrants will boost state and local tax revenues, particularly in states with no sales taxes. That analysis was written up just this week by U.S. News & World Report’s Lauren Fox, who also cited a critique from the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The view from the other side. Recollections of prior reform debates are valuable, but it’s also important to remember what has changed in the 27 years since Washington last overhauled the law: the economic options facing potential migrants. The Mexican economy is far stronger now than it was in 1986, and it’s keeping more workers at home. (Of course, Mexico is not the only country that sends immigrants to the US.) And the American economy is sluggish, with over 7 percent unemployment, and less of a magnet for immigrants looking for work. Security upgrades on the border, even if not always cost-effective, also factor into the calculus here.

In 2011 and 2012, The New York Times’s Damien Cave delivered an ambitious series on these developments and how they are shaping views in Mexico and across Latin America. (It’s archived here.) But too often coverage is framed as if the important events are all happening here, and the rest of the world is static. Even in newsrooms with limited resources, it would be useful for reporters to study public opinion in Mexico and the rest of the world to see how attitudes toward immigration have changed, or not.

All told, it’s probably a good thing that Congress is about to go on its summer vacation. It’ll mean some slower news cycles, but that will give reporters, producers, and editors a little more time to think without being bogged down by quotes, sound bites, and process so they can piece together the big picture—just by looking at the fundamentals.

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Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America, from Pegasus Books. Follow him on Twitter @Richard85Parker. Tags: , , , , , ,