Double vision

By Sara A. Carter, [ San Bernadino Sun], May 28, 2006

Bush's hopes for border defining policy

The nation's top lawmakers are poised for a landmark clash in the coming months on whether illegal immigrants should be given a pathway to citizenship.

A bill passed last week by the Senate would do just that, although a bill passed in December in the House would make it a felony to be in the nation illegally.

The showdown comes after more than a year of heated political debate, resulting in little consensus over what should be done.

At the same time, President Bush's plan to send National Guard troops to the southern border has ratcheted tensions up further, with the decision criticized as either a ploy to placate the president's national-security critics or a way to tacitly militarize the nation's borders.

Regardless, the president's announcement underscores the increasing pressure on the U.S. government to fix the nation's broken borders and craft a set of immigration policies that are sensible, realistic and humane.

Paying closest attention to what happens next are the United States' illegal immigrants, estimated to number about 12 million, and the growing number of U.S. citizens and lawmakers demanding dramatic changes to border security and immigration policy.

For the latter group, two questions loom: Why, in a time of heightened concern about national security, have so many illegal immigrants been able to make their way across the border? And why has border security to this point been such a bit player in the government's national-security plans?

The apparent answer: because the government, especially the president himself, wants it that way.

"It seems as though (President Bush) truly rejects the moral legitimacy of immigration enforcement," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. "He is psychologically committed to open borders, and he can't understand why people don't think the way he does."

"The president has all along had a vision of the U.S. and Mexico that stands in contrast to the way the vast majority of the American people think about the issue," added Glynn Custred, a professor of anthropology at Cal State East Bay who specializes in Latin and South American border studies.

"That vision is that there should be a consistent flow of free labor to the north," Custred continued. "If you look at Bush's speeches (and) his proposed legislation, it seems he wants it that way because he thinks it's best for the world."

A White House spokesman denied the president favors open borders, adding that immigration and immigration enforcement are complex problems that defy easy solutions.

"The president opposes amnesty and believes that illegal immigrants who want to stay need to pay a penalty for breaking the law," said Peter Watkins, White House spokesman. "The president firmly believes that he can achieve comprehensive immigration reform ... because he believes that deporting every illegal immigrant is not wise or possible."

Asked if the Senate's immigration bill - which would give illegal immigrants the opportunity to apply for citizenship - is a road to amnesty, Watkins said the president opposes amnesty but "believes that America can be a lawful society and also a welcoming society."

Perplexing policies

Watkins pointed to the president's plan to send National Guard troops to the southern border as an example of the emphasis Bush is putting on enforcement.

But the administration's previous actions - or lack thereof - on immigration and border security are coming under increasing scrutiny as Capitol Hill nears a landmark debate on the country's most contentious issue.

Here's what's happened under the government's watch:

The Border Patrol continues a "catch and release" program that frees most illegal immigrants back into their home countries or into the United States after their detention with few ever facing prosecution. Meanwhile, the border grows more violent by the week, with armed skirmishes between Border Patrol agents and narcotics runners becoming commonplace.

Mexican military troops have trespassed into the United States more than 200 times since 1996. The U.S. government did not acknowledge the incidents until this year, and no punitive action has ever been taken against Mexico.

The Border Patrol, mirroring Bush's close relationship with Mexican President Vicente Fox, works closely with Mexican consulates when border crossers are detained, to the point where Mexican authorities are being tipped to the whereabouts of U.S. citizen patrols on the lookout for illegal immigrants.

Enforcement is virtually nonexistent for laws aimed at curbing illegal immigration by financially penalizing U.S. businesses that hire illegal workers. And a new government tactic - pursuing criminal sanctions against such employers - yielded just 127 convictions in 2005.

A guest-worker program endorsed by the president would include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, which critics argue is a form of amnesty for millions of people who have broken the law.

The conclusion border experts, politicians and government observers have reached: The relative ease with which illegal immigrants enter the country is the result of the Bush administration's philosophy that borders are a thread linking the economies of the Western Hemisphere, not a threat.

"President Bush has always had a deep friendship (with) Mexico. He believes in immigration, and politically he has always been a believer that the Republican Party should reach out to Latino voters," said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of numerous essays about the GOP.

"Say what you will about President Bush, but on this issue he's not a flip-flopper. He's been consistent."

'Talking to a brick wall'

Since President Reagan's "one-time amnesty" in 1986, which gave permanent residency to an estimated 3 million illegal immigrants, most of them Mexican, little has changed about border security. Yet the number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S., which was expected to decline after the amnesty, has leapt to somewhere between 12 million and 20 million - an increase of at least 300 percent - based on most estimates.

Illegal entry to the United States is a misdemeanor - and if repeated, a felony - but border crossers are rarely prosecuted. They usually are captured, processed and released either to their country of origin or into the United States under an unwritten policy of "catch and release," a policy the Bush administration has done little to change.

In 2004, nearly 1.2 million illegal immigrants were detained, yet only 17,100 - less than 1.5 percent - were convicted, according to a recent study by the Transitional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which monitors the use of immigration laws.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., an opponent of the Senate's immigration legislation, says those numbers reveal the administration's lax approach to immigration law.

"Not only does it make me angry, it diminishes the work that (federal law-enforcement officers) do every day," Tancredo said. "It's insulting to have an administration . . . that has basically abandoned them."

Enforcement on the southern border - carried out by about 6,000 Border Patrol agents, or three for every mile of the border running from the California coast to Texas - has only become more difficult as violence has increased.

State, local and federal law-enforcement officials were regular visitors to the halls of Congress earlier this year, testifying before congressional committees about growing dangers along the southern border.

Violence against Border Patrol agents is up 108 percent since 2004, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Chief David Aguilar testified. Flaming rocks have been thrown at agents, gunbattles erupt frequently along the 2,000-mile stretch, and snipers from the Mexican side have fired on American agents.

A Congressional Research Report released in September 2005 reveals numerous other dangers at the border, including trafficking of humans and the possibility of terrorist organizations using the border to smuggle in weapons.

Mexican military personnel and Mexican state law-enforcement officials also have been accused of aiding narcotics traffickers along the border.

In January, The Sun and its sister newspaper in Ontario, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, published the contents of Department of Homeland Security documents that revealed more than 200 incursions by Mexican military personnel into the United States since 1996.

One such incursion, in January of this year, led to a standoff between Texas sheriff's deputies and men dressed as Mexican military personnel. The deputies said the Mexicans, either regular army or disguised as soldiers, were running drugs into the United States.

The president has rarely addressed any of the border violence or incursion issues publicly. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has stated the incursions usually are accidents.

The administration's apparent lack of concern is putting border states and the nation at risk, lawmen there say.

"I just don't get why the administration doesn't see it," said Sheriff Arvin West of Hudspeth County, Texas. "It's like talking to a brick wall."

While publicly downplaying the incidents with Mexico, administration officials make a point of reiterating the cooperative efforts of both nations to regulate the border. Department of Homeland Security and White House representatives routinely describe the two countries as good partners and good friends on everything from trade to international security.

But that cooperation has taken some questionable forms, as U.S. officials often go beyond what's legally required to get along with Mexico.

As first reported earlier this month by The Sun and Daily Bulletin, Border Patrol officials work closely with Mexican consulates, sharing information about civilian patrol groups to allay Mexico's fears about "vigilante" groups violating the rights of illegal immigrants.

The newspaper's report resulted in a call last week by 21 members of Congress for a Government Accountability Office investigation into Homeland Security's border dealings with the Mexican Foreign Consulate.

The Bush effect

Immigration as a hot-button issue has extended far beyond the border itself, however, and has worked its way into America's heartland and to the corners of the nation.

From the agricultural fields and service sectors of Central and Southern California, to the factories and restaurants of the Midwest and Southeast, the issue resonates with the throngs of immigrants who have come to the United States illegally to, in President Bush's words, "do the jobs Americans won't do."

Millions of those people, and millions of their supporters, took to the nation's streets in March and April, protesting the House's immigration bill, advocating amnesty and generally insisting that the U.S. grant "rights" to illegal immigrants.

The marches themselves resonated with an altogether different group - the growing majority of Americans who believe illegal immigration is out of control, border security is inadequate, and that those who took to the streets have no standing to demand "rights" of any kind.

Although rarely commenting directly about the immigration rallies and their backlash, President Bush lobbied forcefully for the Senate's immigration legislation, which is much more favorable to illegal immigrants than the House proposal.

His influence trickled all the way down to the public-relations level, with the Mexican government contracting earlier this year with Allyn & Co., a PR firm based in Dallas, to launch an ad campaign aimed at improving the image of border crossers and advocating a guest-worker program.

The public-relations firm was the same one used by Bush during his presidential campaigns and when he ran for governor of Texas.

'Turning off the magnet'

When they get to the United States, illegal immigrants are rarely deterred from finding jobs, and those who hire them don't get in much trouble for doing so.

Employer penalties for hiring illegal immigrants, which numbered in the hundreds per year in the 1990s - only a tiny fraction of the nation's businesses to begin with - have nevertheless dwindled in the 21st century, with only a handful of employers nationwide fined for illegal hiring in 2005, according to U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Dean Boyd, an ICE spokesman, said fines against employers hadn't deterred the hiring of illegal immigrants and that the agency had deliberately abandoned that approach in favor of pursuing criminal penalties against employers.

But the new strategy netted just 127 convictions in 2005 and 2,000 arrests so far this year - a drop in the bucket to the nation's estimated 8 million businesses.

The dearth of employment enforcement is frustrating to immigration observers, many of whom strongly contend that employers - and the government that regulates them - hold the key to ending illegal immigration.

"The first thing that should be done is turning off the magnet of jobs," said the Center for Immigration Studies' Krikorian, but "I believe the administration's philosophy is that there is not a problem."

"The difficulty is that many businesses have come to depend on the cheap labor," said Pitney, the Claremont McKenna professor. "They are the ones that are pressing the Senate and the president for a guest-worker program."

The White House's official stance is that it's doing everything it can to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.

"President Bush has made it clear that comprehensive immigration reform requires better work site enforcement," White House deputy chief for policy Joel Kaplan said in a question-and-answer session on the White House Web site. "Businesses have an obligation to abide by the law. The government has the responsibility to help them do so."

The president, in Yuma, Ariz., 10 days ago to tout his new border-enforcement plan, said any comprehensive immigration-reform package must include better workplace enforcement.

But muddying the water is the president's fondness for a guest-worker program, which would allow a certain number of immigrants to work in the United States for several years, eventually becoming permanent legal residents and possibly citizens.

To many Americans and their elected leaders, the plan sounds like a way to grant amnesty to those who, by law, aren't supposed to be here.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is one of those opposed to the guest-worker plan, which he considers a form of amnesty. He and dozens of other hard-line Republicans say they won't approve the Senate's latest immigration bill if the guest-worker provision remains.

Sensenbrenner is to be the House's chief negotiator on any compromise immigration legislation.

Looking ahead

A recent study by Robert Rector, a senior analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, points to dramatic changes in U.S. population and ethnic makeup within the next 20 years if the Senate's immigration proposal becomes law. If it passes, the study says, nearly 66 million more immigrants will enter the United States and gain legal status by 2026.

"Much attention has been given to the fact that the bill grants amnesty to some 10 million illegal immigrants," Rector said. "Little or no attention has been given to the fact that the bill would quintuple the rate of legal immigration into the United States, raising, over time, the inflow of legal immigrants from around 1 million per year to over 5 million per year.

"The impact of this increase in legal immigration dwarfs the magnitude of the amnesty provisions."

New legislation or no, illegal immigration - especially from Mexico - is an issue that won't go away anytime soon, mostly because of the dire state of the Mexican economy, said Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Noriega, participating in a panel discussion for the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute earlier this month, said that despite President Fox's reforms, Mexico's political struggles and its failure to establish economic viability for its citizens have resulted in a failing economy and the disappearance of the country's working class, a huge percentage of which has migrated north to work in the United States.

"Despite years of economic growth and the benefits of NAFTA, Mexico is home to many who live in genuine poverty," he said.

The recent pro-immigration rallies in major U.S. cities - including a 500,000-person march in Los Angeles - exemplified the displacement of millions of people from neighboring nations who are struggling to survive in a country not their own, Noriega added.

"The good news is that a million Mexicans were on the street recently, demanding good jobs and good government and justice," Noriega said. "The bad news is, they were marching in someone else's country."

Whether the Senate and House can reach a compromise on immigration legislation, and if that legislation will be effective, is something impossible to determine.

What seems much clearer is that until at least 2008, when the president leaves office, the Bush administration will continue to try to forge a path to citizenship for millions of people already in the country illegally and build a doorway for millions more.

Fox might have accurately summarized Bush's own philosophy in a January 2001 speech:

"When we think of 2025, there is not going to be a border. There will be a free movement of people, just like the free movement of goods."

About this series

In April 2005, The Sun and its sister newspaper, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario, launched Beyond Borders, a yearlong project to study legal and illegal immigration and explore the political, financial and personal effects of the growing influx of immigrants on Southern California and the nation.

Beyond Borders installments in April, July, October and December of last year, and dozens of stories published as part of ongoing immigration coverage, addressed everything from remittances to border security, and from family ties between the United States and Mexico to political ones.

More recent developments covered in the newspapers have vaulted the issue onto the national stage, each development increasing public interest:

The House of Representatives in December passed a bill making illegal immigration a felony and dramatically stiffening sanctions for hiring illegal immigrants or helping them get into the United States.

The Sun and The Daily Bulletin, citing confidential documents from the Department of Homeland Security, reported in January that Mexican military personnel had crossed the border more than 200 times since 1996.

Based on confidential Border Patrol memos, the newspapers reported in January that gangs linked to Mexican drug cartels had been ordered to assassinate Border Patrol agents.

Legal and illegal immigrants and their supporters took to the nation's streets this spring, with millions - including 500,000 in Los Angeles - marching in support of "rights" for illegal immigrants.

Homeland Security officials, specifically the Border Patrol, were sharing information with Mexican consulates about the location of patrols of U.S. citizens on the lookout for illegal immigrants. That report led to a demand last week by 21 members of Congress that the Government Accountability Office investigate Homeland Security's dealings with Mexican officials.

An immigration bill much less rigid than the House's - including a guest-worker program and path to citizenship for millions of illegal residents - was approved by the Senate on Thursday.


Today's story at a glance:

Dueling legislative proposals are headed for a showdown as the House and Senate try to reach a compromise on their sharply different immigration bills.

Most invested in the process are the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants and a growing number of citizens concerned about the immigrant influx and the nation's borders.

Lack of attention to illegal immigration and border security is a result of the Bush administration's belief that relaxed border policies are better for both countries and the world.

That philosophy is evident in continued use of a "catch and release" program for border detainees, lack of punitive action against Mexico for its military crossing into U.S. territory, Mexican consulates' intimate information-sharing relationship with the Border Patrol, nonexistent enforcement of laws penalizing U.S. businesses for hiring illegal immigrants and endorsement by the president of a guest-worker program that many citizens and politicians believe is a path to amnesty.

The guest-worker provision could be a deal-breaker in House-Senate negotiations, as public sentiment and House leadership are aligned against it.

Mexico's poor economy will continue to push immigrants north to the United States, regardless of how the legislation turns out.


By the numbers

11 million to 12 million

Number of illegal immigrants in the United States. (Other estimates range as high as 20 million and as low as 8 million.)

8.4 million

Illegal immigrants who come from Mexico or other Latin American countries


Illegal immigrants who enter the U.S. each year

7.2 million

Illegal immigrants holding jobs in the United States

5 percent

Illegal immigrants' share of U.S. work force

24 percent

Share of farming jobs held by illegal immigrants

14 percent

Share of construction jobs held by illegal immigrants

Sources: Pew Hispanic Center,


The House version

Highlights of the immigration and border-security bill passed by the House in December:

No provisions providing path to legal residency or citizenship for illegal immigrants. No new temporary guest-worker program.

Makes illegal presence in the country a felony and increases penalties for first-time illegal entry to the United States.

Makes it a felony to assist, encourage, direct or induce a person to enter or attempt to enter or remain in the United States illegally.

Beginning in six years, all employers would have to use a database to verify Social Security numbers of all employees.

Increases maximum fines for employers of illegal workers from current $10,000 to $40,000 per violation and establishes prison sentences of up to 30 years for repeat offenders.

Requires mandatory detention for all non-Mexican illegal immigrants arrested at ports of entry or at land and sea borders.

Establishes mandatory sentences for smuggling illegal immigrants and for re-entering the U.S. illegally after deportation.

Makes a drunken-driving conviction a deportable offense.

Requires building two-layer fences along 700 miles of the 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the United States.


The Senate version

Highlights of the immigration and border-security bill passed Thursday by the Senate:

Allows illegal immigrants who have been in the country five years or more to remain, continue working and eventually become legal permanent residents and citizens after paying at least $3,250 in fines and fees and back taxes and learning English.

Requires illegal immigrants in the United States for between two and five years to go to a point of entry at the border and file an application to return.

Requires those in the country less than two years to leave.

Orders deportation of illegal immigrants convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors, no matter how long they have been in the U.S.

Creates a special guest-worker program for an estimated 1.5 million immigrant farmworkers, who could also earn legal permanent residency.

Provides 200,000 new temporary "guest-worker" visas each year.

Authorizes 370 miles of new triple-layered fencing plus 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Authorizes hiring an additional 1,000 Border Patrol agents this year, for a total of 3,000 additional agents this year.

Adds 14,000 Border Patrol agents by 2011 to the current force of 11,300 agents.

Authorizes additional detention facilities for apprehended illegal immigrants.

Requires employers and subcontractors to use an electronic system within 18 months to verify new hires are legal. Increases maximum fines to employers for hiring illegal workers to $20,000 for each worker and imposes jail time for repeat offenders.

Delays by 17 months, until June 1, 2009, a requirement that Americans re-entering the U.S. after cruises or short visits to Canada and Mexico show a passport or high-tech identification card.

Declares English the country's national language.

Increases the number of H1-B visas for skilled workers from 65,000 to 115,000 annually, beginning in 2007. Immigrants with certain advanced degrees would not be subject to the caps, which could rise by 20 percent depending on labor market demands.

Limits National Guard tours of duty on the U.S.-Mexico border to 21 days.

Allows additional countries to participate in the visa-waiver program, which allows citizens of certain countries to visit the U.S. without a visa. The United States and more than two dozen countries now have reciprocal visa-waiver agreements.

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