This week, a bipartisan group of Senators released a framework for immigration reform that directly ties securing our border to the creation of a pathway to citizenship. If these triggers bring more Republicans to the table to pass legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship, then this is indeed welcome news.
Over the last twenty years the federal government has invested significant resources in securing our border. While there is certainly more to do, meeting additional border metrics is an achievable goal. In fact the last immigration bill debated before the Senate in 2007 also tied legalization to border security metrics. Recent studies show that the federal government has not only met each of that last bill’s border enforcement benchmarks, it actually surpassed them.
The U.S. government spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement in 2012 alone. The number of people detained by federal officials has doubled from about 200,000 in 2001 to nearly 400,000 in 2011. While there has been much written about the growth of our enforcement apparatus along the border, that is only part of the story. Our economic relationship with Mexico has evolved significantly in recent years, and must factor into any calculations on border security. Our southern neighbor should be viewed not as simply a source of undocumented migrants and trafficking, and increasingly as a source of legal tourism and trade.
Mexico has changed tremendously over the last decade. It is now the thirteenth largest economy in the world is our third largest trading partner and second largest export market. By 2011, the gross national income in Mexico per capita had risen to nearly $9,420, nearly triple what it was in 1991. Also of note, the birth rate per Mexican woman has fallen from 7.3 in 1960 to 2 today. The result of these developments is that the net migration of undocumented immigrants from Mexico is zero and that flow into the U.S. we saw over the last decade is unlikely to occur again.
Even prominent Republicans are acknowledging that there has been incredible progress along the border. Arizona Senator John McCain recently noted that “there was no question that there has been a significant reduction in illegal crossings over the past five years,” and further pointed out that “apprehension by the border patrol have dropped 70 percent from 2005 to 2012.” McCain also articulated the need for additional resources to crack down on “drug traffickers and criminals that cross the border.” He clarified that the “final decision” on border security would be made by the Department of Homeland Security and not any new commission created by Congress.
While border security triggers may seem like a poison pill designed to kill a pathway to citizenship in future legislation, consider this: In the 2007 piece of legislation pathway to citizenship was nearly a decade long process. The current framework, once enacted immediately allows undocumented immigrants who meet the criteria set forth by the legislation to apply for legal status with the possibility of a pathway to citizenship provided the border enforcement triggers are met.
While a full on pathway to citizenship without triggers is absolutely preferable, legal status for those who apply at the outset with the possibility of a pathway to citizenship in the future is a big deal. Even Alabama Senator David Vitter recently noted the absurdity of giving large numbers of immigrants legal status without full on citizenship. “Look, as soon as you give these people a legal status, to say that you’re going to reverse that is ridiculous,” Vitter said. “It’ll never happen. Soon as you give them a legal status, they are here legally forever and probably they’re citizens pretty darn soon thereafter.”
Advocates should be cautiously optimistic about legislation that contains a pathway to citizenship tied to border security metrics. While many of us want a more direct pathway to citizenship (the President certainly does), we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just as our border has changed so too has the Republican Party, and after the last election they are more eager than ever to appeal to Hispanics, even a casual observer would have to acknowledge that going from “self deportation” to pathway to citizenship is a big leap in a six-month time span. If Legal status at the outset with the border triggers in place brings us to a place where the House actually allows for a pathway to citizenship, we will have gone a long way toward improving the lives of millions of immigrants currently living in the shadows.
Kristian Ramos is the Policy Director of the 21st Century Border Initiative at NDN and The New Policy Institute.