Politics & Policy

November on the Border

So many politicians are responding to the public’s demand for enforcement of our southern border that they could practically form a human chain across its 2,000 miles.

Much of the credit for this goes to the House. Last week, it passed the Secure Fence Act, which authorizes 700 miles of new, double-layered fencing along the border. Sixty-four Democrats joined the majority to produce a 283–138 victory. Twenty of these Democrats have switched sides since last year, when they opposed House legislation that included the same provision. Meanwhile, in the Senate, a bill to provide $1.8 billion for a 370-mile border fence has been passed by a 93–3 margin. Majority Leader Bill Frist plans to have the Senate also take up the House legislation, which, in addition to building an actual fence, would create a “virtual fence” of cameras, ground sensors, and surveillance technology. “The anti-border-security caucus is down to three members,” quipped Democratic senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who has in the past objected to crackdowns on illegal workers and favored in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants.

We don’t mean to overstate the agreement. The majority of Democrats remain opposed to enforcement measures. Minority Leader Harry Reid has threatened to block the Secure Fence Act. And although House Democrats made no mention of immigration reform in their latest 25-page agenda for 2007, there is little doubt that an amnesty and guest-worker plan along the lines of the Senate’s now-defunct “comprehensive” reform would top the agenda of a Speaker Pelosi.

But take a look at tight races around the country and you will see — contrary to the prognostications of some of our friends on the right — the political resonance of border security. Start with Ben Nelson in Nebraska. Unlike House Democrats who are comfortably ensconced in safe liberal districts, he now takes a tougher line on illegal immigration. His Republican opponent, too, once supported a guest-worker program for illegal aliens already here — but no longer.

In Tennessee, Rep. Harold Ford and former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker are seeking an open Senate seat. Both are both running ads touting their commitment to border security and opposition to amnesty, with Ford (the Democrat) accusing Corker of hiring illegal workers at the construction company he owned.

In Missouri, both Sen. Jim Talent and his Democratic challenger, Claire McCaskill, oppose amnesty and guest-worker programs. McCaskill says she would have opposed the Senate’s immigration bill, as Talent did; and she supports a border-security bill sponsored by Talent. And in Montana, Sen. Conrad Burns’s Democratic challenger, Jon Tester, advocates devoting greater resources to border security and enforcing laws against the hiring of illegal workers.

In coming days, the House plans to consider other worthy enforcement measures. These include a provision for the expedited deportation of illegal aliens convicted of crimes, a clarification that local law enforcement may assist in the enforcement of federal immigration laws, and an increase in the number of federal prosecutors and border-patrol and immigration agents.

While there won’t be serious progress on enforcement until there is a crackdown on employers who hire illegals, Washington’s consideration of the first major immigration reforms in 20 years has at least launched a welcome national debate. The 1986 reform gave amnesty to illegals already in the U.S. but failed to deliver on its promises of enforcement. That’s because attempts to enforce the law met with energetic opposition from interests that favor lax policies, including the immigration bar, immigration-rights groups, and businesses that want cheap labor. Without an engaged public, there was little will to take them on.

But a lot can change in two decades. The public has seen the consequences of Washington’s failure. It knows that any sensible and sustainable immigration policy must begin with securing our borders. It has demanded that the nation’s politicians provide just that. And, at long last, they are starting to listen.

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