Politics & Policy

Not on Obama’s Texas Itinerary: The Border

(Getty Images)
The president is behind on the immigration crisis, but so is Congress.

San Diego — President Obama will visit Texas this week for three political fundraisers. One place he will not visit while in Texas: the Mexican border. A border visit is apparently not necessary, in Obama’s view, to monitor the crisis that has seen thousands of migrants — including unaccompanied children — flood into the United States.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest bizarrely says that people criticizing Obama’s failure to visit the border would “rather play politics than actually try to address some of these challenges.” The president, it seems, will “lead from behind” once again. All this has been too much for Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents the border city of Laredo. “They should have seen this coming a long time ago . . . because we saw those numbers increasing,” he said today on CNN’s State of the Union. Cuellar admitted that our current system creates perverse incentives. “There is an incentive that if you bring your child over here, or you’re a child by yourself, you’re going to be let go. And that’s exactly what’s happening,” he said. “Our immigration courts are so backlogged. There’s not enough detention spaces. . . . This is the incentive we have to take away.” As for Obama’s pledge to send more personnel to the border, Cuellar didn’t sound confident: “I think he’s still one step behind. They knew this was happening a year ago. . . . and they are not reacting fast enough at this time.”

The crisis at the border should serve as a slap in the face to people in both parties who have been unable to come up with a border solution for the last decade. On the one hand, Democrats’ insistence that any reform must be “comprehensive” and include a path to citizenship ignores the fact that for most migrants, becoming a citizen is not a first-tier priority. The Pew Research Center found last year that of the 5.4 million Mexican immigrants who reside legally in the U.S. today, only 36 percent have chosen to become citizens. Safety, the ability to visit family and friends in Mexico and return, and being able to live openly in society are far more important to immigrants. For their part, many Republicans who insist on an enforcement-only approach ignore the evidence that the 45-year-old “War on Drugs” has done little to stem drug trafficking on the border despite an increase of more than 50 percent in Border Patrol funding over the last six years.

Border Patrol agents I spoke with were reluctant to be quoted on the record, but all agreed that a comprehensive solution that combines better border enforcement (which entails less-political enforcement) with a well-designed guest-worker program is necessary if we wish to make real progress. “We need to enforce employer sanctions at the same time we give employers a legal path to fill the jobs they must have workers for,” one agent told me. A retired agent points to the bracero (“one who works using his arms” in Spanish) guest-worker visa program, which until 1964 brought Mexican manual laborers north to work in agriculture, construction, and service industries.

The bracero program began during a labor shortage in World War II and expanded in response to an immigration crisis that peaked in 1954, when arrests of illegal aliens topped the 1 million mark. Under the bracero program, some 300,000 Mexican workers entered the U.S. legally every year. The results were dramatic. By 1959, arrests of illegal aliens had fallen to 45,000 a year; they remained under 100,000 annually until 1964.

There were human-rights abuses; perhaps the worst was that braceros saw 10 percent of their wages placed in accounts to be held for them by the Mexican government. An overwhelming majority of the workers never saw that money.

But the program’s ultimate sin was that it worked too well. It fell victim to opposition from labor-union leaders who viewed the braceros as competition for their members. Growers also spearheaded opposition to the program; they wanted to continue to hire illegal workers so that they could ignore the federally required minimum wage and working-condition requirements of the bracero program. “In 1953, the Eisenhower administration attempted to stop the illegal importation” of workers, writes historian Robert Caro in The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, but Johnson, who was then the Senate minority leader, was “on the growers’ side” and bitterly opposed the bracero program. A decade later, as president, Johnson struck the bracero program a fatal blow. A White House tape recording captures Johnson in 1964 telling one opponent of the bracero program that “these people are taking our jobs.” In December 1964, he issued an executive order killing the program. With its demise, the problem of illegal immigration returned. By 1976 apprehensions reached 876,000, and they mostly rose for decades until the Great Recession drove them back down. Even with the weak economy, they were still above 400,000 in 2013.

Border agents tell me they could most effectively do their job and contain the spreading corruption within their ranks if they didn’t have to chase down people coming here to work and could focus their resources instead on catching gang members and terrorists. In the wake of the “children’s crisis” on our border, it’s time to stake out a rational middle ground on immigration. “Congress could consider ideas for a practical temporary-worker program such as that being promoted by businesswoman Helen Krieble, called the Red Card Solution,” writes former GOP senator Jim DeMint, now president of the Heritage Foundation. Krieble, a Colorado rancher who calls the current system a disgrace to both Americans and foreigners, touts a 2012 poll showing that nearly three-quarters of voters agree that “it is not possible to have absolute border control without a better system for handling guest workers.”

Under one variation of Krieble’s plan, the U.S. government would conduct criminal background checks of applicants and contract with private employment agencies such as Kelly Services to establish offices in countries that today supply the most illegal labor. As Peter Roff of U.S. News & World Report explained it:

A high-tech system using the latest in biometrics [would] identify who comes in, where they go, and when they are supposed to leave. This would also solve the problems of how to create a guest-worker program that allows for circular migration that takes the change in seasons as well as the number of available jobs into account.

Representative Steve Pearce (R., N.M.) has a similar plan that would allow illegal immigrants to become citizens, but they would first have to return to their home country and wait in line there.

A lot of complications need to be worked out, but the Krieble approach recognizes the reality that border enforcement can work only if we accept the demands of our economy and provide a legal path for the workers many American employers rely on. It worked a half-century ago with the bracero program, when we had much less ability to monitor people and curb abuses. The crisis on the border should compel serious action instead of posturing. Those who continue to resist realistic reform are more than “one step behind.” They are creators of the crisis.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO and the co-author, with Hans von Spakovsky, of the recently released Obama’​s Enforcer: Eric Holder’​​s Justice Department.


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