Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions — one of Congress’s most forceful voices for immigration reform — contends that Congress has ignored increasingly urgent pleas from the American people to do something about this grave problem. One in three immigrants, and one in 25 U.S. residents, are here illegally. Delivering an address on the issue at the Heritage Foundation on Thursday, Sessions argued that headway is being made in curbing illegal immigration but that the current presidential election will likely determine whether or not progress continues to be made.
“New statistics illustrate the effectiveness of just a couple of targeted border activities. Illegal entries at the border are down by approximately 20 percent,” Sessions said. “U.S. Border authorities arrested just under 877,000 illegal crossovers in fiscal year ’07. In past years, arrests were typically 1.1 million.”
Such targeted activities include building fences, putting up vehicle barriers, placing the National Guard on the border, ending the catch and release at the border of those other than Mexicans, and increasing the prosecutions of illegal entries. Sessions further quoted a survey by the Mexican government which showed a 30 percent reduction in the number of Mexican citizens looking for work in other countries or preparing to cross the border since 2005.
However, Sessions said that whether or not more progress occurs is largely dependent on the upcoming election. “This is important now and it’s important that we discuss it now because we are in a presidential year,” he said. “As a former United States Attorney appointed by the president, I know that enforcement of the immigration laws, indeed any laws passed by Congress, is a responsibility uniquely given to the executive branch.”
The senator noted that enforcing the law is particularly important with regard to the border fence. “[In 2006] Congress after years of opposition enacted the Secure Fence Act requiring the construction of 700 miles of border fencing,” Sessions said. “By the end of 2008, only 370 miles will be finished. Instead the responsibility of finishing the fence will fall on the next administration, the next president.”
Sessions also repeatedly emphasized the high priority that Americans have placed on the issue. “The people’s judgment and desires have been right from the beginning. They want a lawful and fair system that serves the national interest. They have now made their voices heard. Indeed, our entire phone system was shut down during the [congressional immigration] debate,” he said. “The political class I think has now finally gotten the message and we now have a rare opportunity to end the illegality and to establish a new policy founded on our heritage of law and fairness.”
He also expressed his belief that while the immigration problem is large, it is not overwhelming. “This is a problem that can be fixed. Yes, there will be some cost, but as the Congressional Budget Office and [Heritage Foundation welfare-policy expert] Robert Rector have clearly shown, the cost of not acting is far greater,” Sessions said. “Considering the high priority the American people put on this issue, this is not a heavy lift for Congress or any President. The key ingredient is a firm will and common sense.”
The immigration debate could have a profound impact on the outcome of the upcoming election. Sessions cited a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll which showed that a candidate’s stand on illegal immigration would influence the decision of 80 percent of Americans on which candidate to support, and another poll showing that 33 percent of Republican caucus voters in Iowa said illegal immigration was the most important issue in the election — the number one issue they ranked.
The issue also cuts across party lines, Sessions said. “In late October a study by senior Democratic strategists — one of them James Carville, who is not naïve in these matters — found that for independents, [for] roughly a third of the voters the top issue is our borders having been left unprotected and illegal immigration growing,” he said.
Sessions also argued that if voters wish to see immigration reform, they need to hold presidential candidates accountable. “The debate so far I think has just not been satisfactory,” he said. To that end, Sessions has produced a voters guide as a tool for “demonstrating presidential credibility” on immigration reform. The voters guide consists of 15 questions about specific policy proposals relating to five immigration reform goals: “secure the border”; “end the workplace magnet”; empowering “state and local law enforcement”; “discouraging sanctuaries”; and “improve the legal immigration process.” (The questions on the voters guide can be read here.)
“These specific proposals provide the candidates a great opportunity to help the voters and give them valuable information about their positions on the issues,” he said. “Super Tuesday and General voters [have to ask] the candidates to respond to these specific questions.”
Sessions again emphasized that the electoral stakes are high for those who wish to see continued progress on immigration reform. “If we elect a president that will not follow through, one that is not really committed to what the American people want, we will enter another cycle of lawlessness where millions more come illegally and the problems we face will compound,” Sessions said. “If we elect a president who makes ending illegal immigration a personal goal, I am confident it can be achieved.”
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.