Now that the Senate has passed a flawed $46 billion immigration bill it’s time for the House to be the higher chamber and start over. Do what the Senate failed to do. Pass a bill — or series of bills — that balances the two fundamental American values at stake in this debate: openness to immigration and respect for the rule of law.
The first task for House Republicans, I would argue, is to understand that you don’t solve a messaging or political problem with bad legislation. You solve it with good policy that honors our values, respects the rule of law, and improves people’s lives.
President Reagan, in his farewell address, gave today’s Republicans a blueprint for how to approach immigration. Of his “shining city on the hill,” he said, “It was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
In the House, “walls with doors” is an immigration policy that could unite our nation. But Reagan was describing something even more profound — a deep belief in American exceptionalism, which is something we don’t hear enough of today.
America, of course, is exceptional because it is a miracle of assimilation unrivaled in human history. The fire beneath our melting pot is not our economic or material wealth, but an immaterial idea that all people are created equal and are endowed by the Creator — not the State — with certain rights. Every immigrant who longs for freedom and “comes hurtling through the darkness, toward home,” as Reagan said, makes that fire brighter and our nation stronger.
Republicans ought to invoke these themes whenever they open their mouths on immigration. This should be natural for conservatives because our views on American exceptionalism, individual liberty, and immigration aren’t diluted by political correctness or identity politics.
The House’s second task, I believe, is to balance an unapologetic pro-legal-immigration message with an equally emphatic emphasis on the rule of law, which is what the debate about border security is really about.
The rule of law is critical because it is the glue that holds our nation together and guarantees the freedom that has drawn millions to our country. It says that because we’re created equal we also ought to be treated equally under the law. Unfortunately, the Senate bill ignored the rule of law. It allows the secretary of Homeland Security to waive almost every provision. That’s not the rule of law. That’s the rule of rulers.
Some argue the border can’t be made any more secure, but the facts say otherwise. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, our border is only 40 to 55 percent secure. I also know the border is not secure based on what I learn on the Intelligence Committee, and through my oversight work as the ranking member of Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee — the committee that has jurisdiction over the border. For instance, I’ve been asking DHS for a report on border-security performance — and metrics for how they define security — for more than a year with no response. I also asked Secretary Napolitano for DHS’s sector-by-sector plan over breakfast a month ago. “I’ll have it for you tomorrow,” she said. I got a piece of paper, but it wasn’t a plan.
The truth is the administration doesn’t know if the border is secure and they don’t care, and they won’t start caring until Congress and the American people make them care.
The House would be wise to force this issue with the White House and the Senate. What the American people really want, I believe, is not so much a perfect policy solution or series of triggers that will lead to other reforms. Those decisions are important, but what the public wants is to see that we have the political will to secure the border and respect the rule of law. Once that happens, the American people will be extremely gracious and generous about supporting a pathway to legal status for the 11 million people who are here illegally. After all, the public isn’t mad at aspiring immigrants. They’re mad at Washington. And rightly so. Nothing undermines the rule of law more than politicians who pass laws they have no intention of enforcing.
And how will the American people measure political will when it comes to the border? They’ll know it when they see it. Political will — in a security sense — is what people see every time they go through an airport. They know we are committed to stopping another 9/11. They want to see some of that zeal shifted to the border. A commitment to spend billions on border stimulus for contractors doesn’t count.
Another way the House could communicate seriousness would be to transfer DHS dollars dedicated to the militarization of small-town America to more-pressing border-security needs. For example, why not start by shifting resources from lower-priority programs like the one that gave the town of Keene, N.H. a BearCat armored personnel carrier to patrol a pumpkin festival?
The House could take many additional steps as well, such as improving interior enforcement. Forty percent of all people who are here illegally walked through the front door and overstayed their visas. If interior enforcement isn’t improved we’ll be passing another “reform” bill in ten years.
Many in Washington are betting the House’s efforts on immigration will fail. I’m convinced the House will prove them wrong. With cold reason, hard facts, and a passionate defense of legal immigration and the rule of law, the House can get reform right.
— Tom Coburn is a Republican senator from Oklahoma.