TOPICS > Politics

Experts Debate Fence Along Mexico Border, Immigration Policy in the U.S.

October 26, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: This bill will help protect the American people. This bill will make our borders more secure. It is an important step toward immigration reform.

JEFFREY BROWN: With the stroke of a pen, the president this morning authorized the construction of a fence along 700 miles of the 2,100-mile frontier between the United States and Mexico. The fence would stretch from points in California, to a long, 360-mile stretch largely in Arizona, to a 170-mile expanse along the Texas border.

The bill actually passed Congress late last month, but wasn’t signed until today, less than two weeks prior to Election Day, giving Republicans a platform to talk border security and illegal immigration in the campaign’s final stretch. In fact, the bill, which allocates no new money to build the fence, is the only result so far of a long-running debate over comprehensive immigration reform.

GEORGE W. BUSH: We’re a nation of laws, and we must enforce our laws. We’re also a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition, which has strengthened our country in so many ways.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president himself had argued that any final immigration bill must include a guest-worker program, giving legal status short of citizenship to millions of currently undocumented immigrants presently working in the United States. The president’s proposal was endorsed by a majority of the Senate.

SEN. LARRY CRAIG (R), Idaho: Oh, yes, our economy needs immigrant workers. We’ll need several hundreds of thousands a year if we expect our economy to continue to grow as it has and to prosper.

JEFFREY BROWN: And pro-immigration forces numbering in the millions rallied throughout the spring and summer for a bill that would give undocumented workers a chance to stay in the U.S. But many House Republicans equated guest-worker status to amnesty and wanted to push border security first.

REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER (R), Wisconsin: The approaches taken by the House and the Senate on this issue have been 180 degrees apart.

JEFFREY BROWN: Their objections scuttled any broad reform.

Thus far on the campaign trail, candidates in both parties have tried to take advantage of the immigration issue. In Pennsylvania, for example, incumbent Republican Senator Rick Santorum and his challenger, State Treasurer Bob Casey, have run dueling ads.

AD ANNOUNCER: Listen carefully to what Bob Casey said about the Senate immigration bill.

BOB CASEY, JR. (D), Senate Candidate: If I were in the United States Senate, I would vote yes.

AD ANNOUNCER: This bill gives amnesty to 11 million illegal aliens.

BOB CASEY, JR.: I would vote yes.

AD ANNOUNCER: Listen to Rick Santorum on illegal immigration.

SEN. RICK SANTORUM (R), Pennsylvania: Illegal immigration and doing something about border security is important.

AD ANNOUNCER: Really? Then why did he vote seven times against more Border Patrol agents?

The immigration debate

JEFFREY BROWN: Given the long and loud debate over broad immigration reform and now a new law to build a fence, both parties have reason to wonder how voters will respond come Election Day.

And we look at that now with: Maria Echaveste, currently with the University of California at Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies. She's a former deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House.

And Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter controls on illegal immigration.

Maria Echaveste, starting with you, first to set the content for where we are today. Why do you think, in the end, that broad immigration reform failed and the borer fence alone came out of the debate?

MARIA ECHAVESTE, University of California, Berkeley: I think it can be laid directly at the House leadership who was very concerned about holding onto control of the House and who decided, rather than to set out, go to conference with the Senate, which is usually how you do business in Washington, and try to work out a compromise between the Senate and House bill, they decided to politicize this issue, hoping to gain some traction and really make it impossible, at least in this session, to get practical solutions to a very vexing problem. We all agree the immigration system is currently not working.

JEFFREY BROWN: Steven Camarota, you have a different view of the background leading up to this?

STEVEN CAMAROTA, Center for Immigration Studies: Well, I think that what happened was basically Congress talked to the American people. They did their own polls; they went back to their constituents. And what they found is that there's very little support in America to legalize illegals and the kinds of very large increases in future legal immigration that both the president and the Senate wanted.

And, in fact, what most people want is the law enforced. The president and Congress don't have a lot of credibility in the enforcement area; they haven't done much. And so what most people say is, "We want the law enforced." And so basically the House leadership was responding to a pretty much strong sentiment among the American people.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so today the signing of the fence, the bill on the fence, you see that as what, a good first step, or what?

STEVEN CAMAROTA: Yes, I think most people who favor enforcement recognize that a series of fences and barriers and so forth at the border is an important step, but it's only one step. It's only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

You have to have interior enforcement. You have to be careful who you let in on a temporary basis. You need more agents at the border. You need to go after the employers who hire illegals. You need to establish a national database so that, when someone goes for a job, the employer can verify that that person is here and, if the employer doesn't do that, then a stiff fine can be levied.

So everyone recognizes there are a lot of other things to be done, but it is an important step, but it's going to take a lot of other steps, as well.

Voters response

JEFFREY BROWN: So let's start looking at the political impact. Maria Echaveste, broadly speaking, first of all, how do you see candidates looking at the issue? And do you see it hurting Republicans or Democrats or both?

MARIA ECHAVESTE: Well, before I get to that, I really want to push back a little bit on Steve in terms of this fence. It's underfunded. It's a small part of the border.

And most importantly, it's a continuation of the ongoing policies of the last 10, 12 years, which has been border enforcement. We've spent billions of dollars, and we actually haven't solved the problem, so why are we staying the course on something when it's not working?

In terms of the politics, I think that what we're seeing is, depending on the district and the state, it is not having the effect that I think the Republican House leadership wanted, which is to say that it is not resulting in making competitive races become Republican-controlled seats.

Indeed, if you look at Arizona, for example, the 8th District, where we have a very restrictionist candidate running on Republican side, the Democratic candidate is pulling away because she is articulating what most Americans want, which is they want a comprehensive solution. They want to do something about the people who are currently here, as well as enforce our laws against both employers and stronger border. And they understand that a piecemeal approach simply isn't going to work.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see, broadly speaking, in terms of how it's playing? Then we'll get into some specific campaigns.

STEVEN CAMAROTA: Right. In general, immigration is not people's most important issue. To the extent it is, most Americans want less immigration, not more. They want the law enforced. They generally think legal immigration is already too high. But it isn't their number-one issue.

But in general what's happening around the country is most Republicans are running on an enforcement platform, and the Democrats are following suit, because they look at the same polls. The share of the population that wants to legalize illegals and increase legal immigration is pretty darned small.

The pro-enforcement factor

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think it's the pro-enforcement that brings out the voters that will be swayed on this particular issue?

STEVEN CAMAROTA: Generally speaking, when you ask voters, "What would you prefer, to enforce the law and the illegals go home, or legalize the illegals with some kind of earned amnesty or legalization?" Overwhelmingly, people want the illegals to go home and they don't want an increase in legal immigration.

However, immigration is not people's number-one issue. For the people that it is their number-one issue, they are overwhelmingly on the enforcement side.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think of that, Maria Echaveste?

MARIA ECHAVESTE: Well, two points. Even Steve's own polls show -- the Center for Immigrant Studies did one recently in New Jersey of 600 likely voters in the New Jersey election. In there, 42 percent of those responding did say they wanted more enforcement, but 35 percent said they wanted those who are currently here illegally to be able to stay. That is not an overwhelming majority for the position that Steve is advocating.

I think what we see is that this issue -- totally agree -- it is not at the top of most voters' list of most important issues. In fact, Iraq and other issues are at the top. But where people are using it or attempting to use it, such as a number of the campaigns, it is not having the same effect that I think people had wanted, in terms of really driving a wedge between Democratic voters who support a more comprehensive approach.

The Latino vote

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me stay with you and ask about the Latino vote, because we saw those huge marches this summer, a lot of people out there, a lot of attention. There was the slogan, "Today we march, tomorrow we vote." So to what extent now has this issue galvanized voters?

MARIA ECHAVESTE: Well, with any movement, it takes time. There is certainly mobilization going on among immigrant voters. We're all going to be looking very carefully in a number of districts to see whether immigrant voters, naturalized citizens, and also the Latino vote impacted some of those races.

But we need to understand that what's happened in this immigrant debate is that it's gotten very ugly. And it's not that hard to take the immigrant-bashing, the aspersions that are being cast on a group of people to quickly become, not just that you're against illegal immigrants, but that you're against Hispanics.

People need to understand 60 percent or more of those who claim Hispanic heritage are native-born. But the way it's turning out in this country, you're presumed to be illegal until you prove otherwise. That is a very risky gamble for either political party, if they want to court the fastest-growing part of the electorate in the years to come.

We may not see the impact in this particular election, but I believe, in the years to come, especially perhaps in 2008, Republicans will rue the day that they really got on this bandwagon of making immigrants the enemy.

JEFFREY BROWN: If she is right, Steven Camarota, that there is a kind of broad-brush ugliness against native-born Hispanic population, that would suggest the possibility of a backlash against Republicans in this case. Do you see one?

STEVEN CAMAROTA: Well, I think that it seems very unlikely. First, the Hispanic community itself is quite divided. Hispanic leaders, intellectuals, those in the media and so forth tend to favor the kind of amnesty and big increases in the legal immigration approach that the president does.

But when you survey actual Hispanic voters, they divide. A very large share -- and especially those who tend towards the Republicans -- overwhelmingly favor an enforcement approach.

The other thing to keep in mind is that I'm always very touchy about engaging in sort of crass, racialized analysis of the U.S. electorate. I think Americans are more sophisticated than that. But if you do it, you have to keep this in mind: About 80 percent of the electorate is white; about 7 percent of the electorate is Hispanic.

So if you lose 1 percentage point of white voters, you'd need about 10 percentage points of Hispanic voters, very roughly speaking, to offset that. So even if you do engage in a kind of crass, racialized analysis of the electorate, you still have to recognize that Hispanics are a very tiny share, and they're not in the battleground states and districts, anyway.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We're going to have to leave it there. Steven Camarota, Maria Echaveste, thank you both very much.