National Border Control Council Head Discusses Immigration

August 16, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the second in a series on immigration in the United States, National Border Patrol Council President T.J. Bonner shares his views.

RAY SUAREZ: Tonight, a voice from the enforcement side of the immigration debate. T.J. Bonner is president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing more than 10,000 Border Patrol agents. Bonner himself has been patrolling the U.S. side of the border with Mexico for 28 years and joins us now from San Diego.

Mr. Bonner, as someone who has been following this closely, what’s been your reaction to both the tone and the content of the current debates over illegal immigration to the United States?

T.J. BONNER, President, National Border Control Council: I have to admit that I’m disappointed by both the tone and the content. Both sides seem to be missing the central point, which is most people coming across that border are coming across for a reason: to get work in the United States.

Focusing solely on the border is not going to solve the problem. We need to focus at the work sites in a meaningful way if we ever hope to gain control of our borders.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you talk about the problem being at the work site. Do you support those proposals that emphasize securing the border over other ones?

T.J. BONNER: I think that you have to look at this problem in its totality. I don’t think you can focus just on the border.

If you’re going to put, let’s say, National Guard troops, more Border Patrol agents at the border, and yet ignore the reason people are coming across the border, which is to obtain employment in the United States, all you’re doing is engaging in an enforcement strategy that I call the revolving-door strategy.

You catch someone, send them back to their country of origin, which for most people is Mexico, and within a matter of minutes or hours, you see that same person crossing again. Personally, I’ve caught the same group of people four times in one eight-hour shift.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s the answer to those industries that want and need workers, to those parts of the country that want and need workers, and a country overall that doesn’t want lots of people coming over? How do we massage those tensions?

T.J. BONNER: I think, first and foremost, you have to seal off the backdoor of illegal immigration. The way to do that is to come up with a system that allows employers to figure out with certainty who has a right to work in this country and who doesn’t, and then to punish those employers who ignore or disobey the law.

At that point, then you can stand up a legitimate guest-worker program. But you have to be careful about how you do this. You can’t just open it up and allow an employer to say, “What I’m looking for is a skilled brick mason, and I’m willing to pay five dollars an hour, and I just can’t find any Americans willing to take it at that wage.” Well, of course you can’t.

You have to have a mechanism in place to force the employers to announce jobs at a fair and decent wage, and then — and only then — if they can’t find Americans willing to take the jobs, allow them to import workers, guest workers.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who have made it past you and your agents and gotten to work in the United States? Should they have to leave the country before they could qualify for one of those guest-worker programs that you describe?

T.J. BONNER: I think they should have to leave the country. I think that it’s bad public policy to reward people for breaking laws. We did that back in 1986, and it turned out to be a terrible mistake.

At that time, it was estimated that we had between three million and four million people in the country illegally. It was also estimated that perhaps 500,000 of them would qualify for an amnesty. At the end of the day, 2.7 million people took advantage of the amnesty provision. And here we are 20 years later, and we have between 12 million and 20 million people in the country illegally. It obviously did not work.

RAY SUAREZ: Has crossing the border become more dangerous in recent years?

T.J. BONNER: Crossing the border has become more expensive, more dangerous in recent years, because the United States has put more resources along the border, which has caused more people to flock to the smugglers. For example, within the last dozen years or so, the cost of being smuggled has increased tenfold. At the same time, smugglers are moving towards the deserts and the mountains, and more and more people are dying as they attempt to cross through this inhospitable terrain.

RAY SUAREZ: What about private citizens stepping in? They say they want to help you out by being eyes and ears. Have more citizens at the border keeping an eye on it helped you?

T.J. BONNER: Citizens at the border, such as the Minuteman Project, have helped to focus attention to the problem along the border. I wouldn’t say that they have helped decrease the amount of traffic, because there really hasn’t been a decrease in the amount of traffic no matter what we’ve tried.

The number of people coming across the border has stubbornly persisted at several million per year. Every year the Border Patrol catches over a million people, and our agents on the front lines estimate that, for every person we catch, two or perhaps three slip by us.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what about a proposal that got a lot of attention lately, sending the National Guard to the border? Has that helped?

T.J. BONNER: The National Guard has not had much of an effect on the volume of traffic coming across the border, either, despite the administration’s proclamation that apprehensions dropped 45 percent. When you dissect what they said, they were comparing the period from March to May with the period from May to July, and historically we always see a decrease in apprehensions.

This year was no exception, and this year was even a bit higher than previous years, principally because the heat was so unbearable. We had triple-digit temperatures throughout June and July, which caused a lot of people to stay home.

RAY SUAREZ: In his recent book called “The Devil’s Highway,” Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea profiles both the men who were stranded in the desert and died in large numbers a few years ago in west Texas and also the Border Patrol agents who found them and saved many lives. And he said that one of the surprises in writing the book and doing the reporting was the tremendous sympathy and feeling that many of the agents had for the men that they pursue, intercept and sometimes save in the deserts.

T.J. BONNER: Border Patrol agents as a community are incredibly compassionate towards the people that we catch. It’s not their fault that they’re coming across the borders looking for work. This is the fault of our government for having policies that on the one hand say, “Don’t cross the border,” but if you do, we will reward you with a job that pays 20, 50 times more than you could ever dream of making in your home country.

Until we address that problem, we’re going to continue to have a border that’s out of control that invites millions of people to cross illegally every year.

RAY SUAREZ: T.J. Bonner, thanks for being with us.

T.J. BONNER: Thanks for having me on the program.

JIM LEHRER: We’ll hear about immigration next from Chalmers Carr. He’s the owner of a South Carolina commercial peach operation which relies heavily on migrant laborers.

Industry workers

Crossing the border