Politics & Policy

Santorum’s Ill-Advised Border War

He stepped into unknown territory to criticize Perry’s legitimate immigration policies.

Rick Santorum, in his day the U.S. senator I most admired, is an embarrassment as a no-hoper presidential candidate — and nowhere has that been more painfully evident than in his attempt to characterize Rick Perry as being soft on illegal immigration. Last night, he ridiculed a health-insurance initiative Governor Perry had supported for the benefit of those living on the Texas–Mexico border. “He gave a speech in 2001 in which in talked about ‘binational health insurance’ between Mexico and Texas,” Santorum said. “I don’t think even Barack Obama would be in favor of binational health insurance.” This was followed by thunderous applause from an audience that clearly didn’t know anything more about the issue than Santorum does.

Santorum is absolutely correct about one thing: Barack Obama would not have supported the plan, which would have liberalized health-insurance regulations in Texas, allowing insurance companies — private companies — to write policies on both sides of the border, and to write policies that cover medical procedures on both sides of the border. Which is to say, Santorum was giving Perry grief for having the audacity to suggest that insurance companies ought to be allowed to sell insurance to whom they please and where they please, that consumers ought to have more choices, and that we can alleviate the costs of providing health care to the uninsured by letting markets work. No doubt Barack Obama would be opposed — but why is Rick Santorum? Two possible answers to that question: 1. He is engaging in cheap demagoguery. 2. He has no idea what he is talking about.

Texas has more than a thousand miles of border with Mexico, and it has many thousands of people who have ties to both countries: Mexican nationals who live in Texas, U.S. nationals who live in Mexico, people who live in one country but have family in the other, people who travel daily between the countries, etc. Illegal immigrants are, of course, a part of the picture, but they are not the entire picture. There are more than 1 million people who live on one side of the border and work — legally — on the other side. Let’s say you’re a Mexican national working in Laredo, Texas, with a wife and children in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. You can buy health insurance for yourself through an employer-provided plan — but not for your wife and children, and not a plan that covers expenses for treatment in Mexico if you get sick or injured while you are there. Health insurance that doesn’t cover you where you are, or that excludes your family, is not terribly useful. And if those uninsured spouses and children get sick or injured, whose emergency rooms are they going to end up in? Mexico’s? Probably not.

Beyond that, there are thousands of Americans who cross the border every day to take advantage of less expensive medical and dental services in Mexico. (Memo to Rick Santorum: Markets work.) You will not be surprised to know that the main opponents to the binational proposal were physicians’ groups whose members did not want to compete with Mexican doctors and dentists.

There’s a boatload of illegal immigrants in Texas, to be sure. There’s also a boatload of illegal immigrants in Santorum’s native Pennsylvania, and an even bigger boatload in the Washington suburbs, where he now lives. Texas’s binational health-insurance initiative was not a plan to have the government buy immigrants insurance; it was a plan to let them — and Americans living along the border — buy insurance for themselves. Are we better off with more immigrants insured or with fewer immigrants insured? The answer to that is obvious, but, if you cannot figure it out, visit an emergency room in Alexandria, Va.

Governor Perry has got a lot of grief for allegedly coddling illegals, but here’s something to keep in mind: Governors don’t set federal border policy — they just have to deal with its real-world consequences. Congress writes the law.

Santorum, during his time in the Senate, was pretty solid on illegal immigration, opposing the “comprehensive” reform proposals of George W. Bush and authoring the Border Security First Act of 2006. Santorum’s border-security act is worth reading. (Do so, here.) In his key piece of immigration legislation, Santorum did not call for a sea-to-shining-sea border fence, or even one stretching from Galveston to El Paso. What he called for was: limited strategic fencing, surveillance, increased manpower, technology, infrastructure, and a stronger federal commitment to securing the border. In other words, when Senator Santorum proposed border-security legislation, he proposed exactly what Rick Perry proposes today. I happen to think that Governor Perry is wrong about building a border fence — the logistical challenges are significant, but they are not insurmountable — he is not entirely wrong when he says that “the best solution involves added manpower, not unmanned walls.” A guy who wants to deploy Predator drones and the U.S. military to police the border, who would ban sanctuary cities, and who handed the Obama administration a $350 million bill for the cost of dealing with illegals in Texas is not an open-borders squish.

Santorum ought to approach the issue with a little more circumspection. He spent a decade and a half in Washington, during which time the federal government did approximately zilch on border security, while Perry — who does not have an army or the power to make immigration policy — has dispatched the Texas Rangers, along with millions of dollars, to do a job that Washington ought to be doing but isn’t.

— Kevin D. Williamson is deputy managing editor of National Review.


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