Border mayors: Economics ignored in immigration debate
With just 19 days left in the 2013 session, it’s becoming less likely that Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform this year, and the lack of progress is harming the economies of states along the border region, including Arizona, a group of border city mayors and experts said.
Nearly 200 people gathered in an auditorium on Monday night at the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind to talk about immigration reform. The dialogue was moderated by Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and attended by U.S. Reps. Ron Barber and Raul Grijalva, along with a panel of experts, and the mayors of Bisbee and Douglas.
While the Senate pushed through a comprehensive immigration bill in June — the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act — the bill has stalled in the House over differences in security and the treatment of those already in the country. Bisbee Mayor Adriana Z. Badal, believes there is an “enormous gap” between the main missions of the Senate and House bills.
“The Senate is more interested in championing the people and House is more interested in enforcement,” she said. “Those two missions, if you will, seem to make it very difficult for us to get to a discussion or a debate about what we want to do.”
Douglas Mayor Danny Ortega agreed, arguing that reform should include technology and infrastructure improvements to ports. “We’re in desperate need of new ports of entry,” he said, noting that Douglas’ main port was built in the 1930s and improved nearly two decades ago. “It’s not capable of handling the traffic that we’re dealing with today and it’s not enough for our future.”
Many people from Mexico just want to come into the United States to tour and shop, he said and long waits at the port are hurting the economy.
A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Senate’s bill would increase the country’s economic growth by 3 percent and decrease the federal budget deficit by $158 billion between 2014 and 2023.
“Virtually every community is saying we need to fix this system,” said U.S. Rep. Ron Barber. “The way to influence colleagues on the Republican side is to really drive the economic argument hard.”
Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council also noted that economic argument remained important. “We need a better discussion about the human costs of this and we need a better and more robust conversation about the economics of this issue,” he said.
Border communities are so much more than immigration, said Badal, noting that the economics of the border towns like Bisbee and Douglas have not been part of the discussion.
“We’re addressing the symptom and not the root cause of the problem,” she said, arguing for additional economic investments in Mexico. “We need a different approach, we need to champion immigrants and not just immigration reform.”
There are 15 million people in the border region, said U.S. Rep. Grijalva. “One of the frustrations for those who represent the border is these discussions take place in a vacuum. People in Iowa or Ohio — God bless them — are making critical decisions about what the border is going to be.”
The border security provisions have been criticized by many for increasing the “militarization” of the border. The Corker-Hoeven amendment will double the number of Customs and Border Patrol officers, add a network of tower-based sensors, expand the border wall, and double the fleet of Predator drones.
During the discussion, Johnson criticized the requirement for additional 700 miles of border wall. “The red of border enforcement is the border fence. It’s the most expensive political commercial that’s ever built,” he said. “
But, it’s not about being effective because at its best, half of the undocumented immigration in the United States didn’t come through the desert, it came through a port of entry. So you’re talking about the most expensive way to ineffectively solve half of the problem.”
The border isn’t a line in the sand, said Johnson. “For the sake of some small, local political rhetoric we’re willing to cut our own throats in terms of economic growth and trade.”
Shifting this argument and getting immigration reform out the door could be difficult.
House Republicans won’t put the Senate bill to the floor, instead opting to solve issues through a piecemeal approach, according Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress.
A “patchwork” of five bills are in various committees, including a bill to require the use of E-Verify, an agriculture bill, a visa bill for high-skilled workers, as well as H.R 15 which would replace many of the onerous security provisions added in the Senate’s bill and include new reporting requirements from the Department of Homeland Security.
The 2012 election showed that the electorate was changing, according to Fitz and that represents an “existential” threat to the GOP’s future, especially if the party remains unable to gather greater support among Latinos and other minority groups.
However, demographics may not be enough to sway some congressional members, said Fitz, because of those representatives are running in districts designed to be uncompetitive though legislative gerrymandering.
“There are numerous ways that this could go forward,” he said, arguing that pressure from the community could help persuade legislators to push some kind of reform through. “But will they realize that it’s in their own existential self-interest to move forward on this. Will they do so? That’s the $64,000 question.”