In his 2009 book, Homeland Security and Federalism: Protecting America Outside the Beltway, Matt A. Mayer, president of the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions and a former senior official of the Department of Homeland Security, took a look at our immigration laws and their enforcement, including a close look at Arizona. Here he talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about Arizona’s new law and its security, federalism, and human implications.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You wrote, “It simply has become too easy to demagogue the opposition by focusing on one aspect of the illegal immigration problem.” Witness Arizona right now?
MATT A. MAYER: Exactly. Arizona is trying to deal with a real and pressing problem. Critics may not like the approach taken by Arizona, but the idea that a majority of legislators and Gov. Jan Brewer, as well as the 70 percent of Arizonans who support the new law, are a bunch of racists is pure and utter nonsense. It is demagoguery in its purest form. Frankly, it is easy for people living outside of the Southwest to criticize Arizona, but they don’t face the enormous financial, security, and social issues that come with half a million illegal immigrants.
LOPEZ: Is Arizona’s approach to be encouraged insofar as it’s a state solution, tailored to a state?
MAYER: Yes. Without question, it is the federal government’s role to secure the border and to determine citizenship issues, but once an illegal immigrant has made it across the border, states and localities have a duty to their citizens to deal with the presence of illegal immigrants, especially as those illegal immigrants put financial, security, and employment pressure on the states and localities. Arizona has been at the forefront of this issue since 2004. And, keep in mind, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — America’s most liberal court — found Arizona’s much-maligned employment law constitutional.
LOPEZ: Is Arizona a model?
MAYER: Arizona is one model of what states and localities can do to control illegal immigration. There are other places — Oklahoma and Valley Park, Mo., for example – that are also models of action being taken to deal with illegal immigration.
LOPEZ: Were mistakes made by Janet Napolitano?
MAYER: Yes. As governor of Arizona, Janet Napolitano tried to talk tough on the issue, but 15 times she vetoed legislation that tried to deal with the illegal-immigration problem. Her failure as governor contributed to the emergency existing in Arizona today. Add to her failures as governor the decisions she has made as secretary of Homeland Security — ramping down border security, weakening the 287(g) program for states and localities, giving illegal immigrants work permits in exchange for cooperation, and putting in place a de facto catch-and-release policy, to name a few — she needs to be held accountable for her failure to do her job.
LOPEZ: Is there any way she can truly guarantee that the border will be safe, as she has been assuring in recent days?
MAYER: Absolutely not. With press report after press report chronicling the violence and danger on the border, the Obama administration’s statements that the border is secure are disconnected from reality. They need to get a clue.
LOPEZ: Why do you point to the Tenth Amendment, which has been getting a lot of airtime lately?
MAYER: I point to the Tenth Amendment because, the last time I checked, the Constitution still matters. Take a step back for a moment and think about what critics of Arizona’s law are saying. Fundamentally, they are taking the position that, unless an illegal immigrant commits a crime, there is literally nothing a governor or mayor can do to deal with an illegal-immigrant population within his jurisdiction — they just have to deal with the financial, security, and employment costs and hope that the federal government allocates resources to “rescue” them. That position has no support in the Constitution or case law.
The fact is that, when the Constitution was written and ratified, states and localities under the Tenth Amendment retained their traditional powers over their jurisdictions. These powers have been upheld by the Supreme Court again and again. It is high time we remember our Constitution was intended to limit the federal government, not states and localities.
LOPEZ: What is the federal government’s most important role here?
MAYER: Purely and simply, to secure the border and deport illegal immigrants who are apprehended. Period.
LOPEZ: Is there any way the Obama administration could realistically play that role?
MAYER: Given the purely political nature of the Obama administration, I seriously doubt it. They are more interested in scoring political points with the Hispanic community than solving a serious problem. They need to tread carefully, and Arizona shows why. Keep in mind that Arizonians have passed ballot measures to deal with illegal immigrants by margins of 75 percent to 25 percent. I believe whites only represent 55 percent or so of the vote, so that means a large chunk of the state’s Hispanic-American population is voting for these measures. Why? Because many are first-generation immigrants who know that the illegal-immigration population undermines their opportunities by creating a cheap labor pool, thereby making it harder for them to get jobs and start their climb on the economic ladder.
LOPEZ: What are the best local practices you observed while working on your book?
MAYER: Valley Park, Mo., is the best example I found of a local government putting in place measures to deal with the illegal-immigrant population. The key is to limit job opportunities — putting in place an E-Verify program tied to business registration will help; so will requiring attestations on tax filings regarding use of the system and employment of illegal immigrants. If illegal immigrants can’t easily find jobs, they will think twice about coming here and staying here.
LOPEZ: Is there any consistency to John McCain’s position?
MAYER: Not really. John McCain is in a tough primary, so he has morphed from the man who co-sponsored an amnesty bill with Ted Kennedy to a tough-on-immigration politician. Nothing in Arizona has changed that dramatically from when he co-sponsored the bill — it was a mess in 2007 and remains so today.
LOPEZ: Do people underplay the extent to which illegal immigration is a security issue?
MAYER: The security angle of illegal immigration gets short shrift today because it doesn’t have the emotional appeal and soundbite drive of the “racist” label. Americans need to know that if an economic migrant can easily cross the border for work, an al-Qaeda member can just as easily.
LOPEZ: You point out that “the poverty rate for illegal immigrants is double the rate of Americans.” Outside of the security and efficiency issues, isn’t there a humane argument to make here? Illegal immigrants don’t have access to the same pathways to success that legal immigrants do, right?
MAYER: Yes. The illegal-immigrant population is a group of people who mostly are just trying to improve upon the conditions in their home countries. They come here and are easily exploited and put in unsafe work environments. Because many don’t plan to stay, their interest in assimilating is low. They seek a dream that involves making money here, sending it back home, and eventually returning home to live a better life outside of America. Not all of them, of course, but enough of them. This mentality is unlike the immigrant who comes here legally to live the American Dream and makes our country a better place because of it.
LOPEZ: What is the “three-legged stool of immigration,” and how can it help us going forward?
MAYER: The three-legged stool of immigration represents border security, interior enforcement, and a temporary-worker program. The idea is that it makes little sense to come up with a solution to the 11 million illegal immigrants already here when we haven’t secured the border, enforced existing laws to detect and deport those apprehended here, and created a robust legal means for people to come work in the United States. Once we have done those things and the stool is steady, we can then figure out what the remaining illegal-immigration population is and how to deal with it. The key is to create the right incentives and disincentives so that being in the United States illegally is a poor decision. If it is hard to get here, hard to remain, and hard to find a job, it will not be worth expending the money and incurring the risk of coming here and staying here. If we fail to do these things, we will find ourselves in the same situation in another 20 years, just as we find ourselves in our current situation, 20 years after the last amnesty in 1986.
LOPEZ: Immigration may or may not become subject to congressional legislation in the near term. What would constructive legislation look like?
MAYER: Constructive legislation would focus on the three-legged stool and not attempt to “solve” the amnesty issue. Because we are so far from having a secure border, rigorous interior-enforcement actions, and a sensible and legal temporary-worker system, adding amnesty only invites hard opposition and renders the legislation politically tainted.
LOPEZ: Any advice to Republicans?
MAYER: My advice to conservatives is to push hard for the three-legged stool and fight on behalf of America’s legal immigrants, who have the most to lose from an amnesty program. With the bad economy, they are the most vulnerable and most in need of support.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.