Today, after months of political wagering from both Republicans and Democrats, the Senate unanimously passed a $600 million dollar bill marked for border security which is now headed to President Obama’s desk for signature. While the sequence of events leading to this most recent capitulation to the enforcement-first crowd is a little dizzying, the bill’s unanimous passage was partly a product of a bluff called on the Senate floor. Although the substance of the bill could have been much worse, the mere fact that the only major immigration legislation passed thus far in the 111th Congress was another border bill shows how far we are from treating immigration as a serious issue, rather than a political game.

To recap: On August 5, in the last few hours before adjourning for recess, the Senate passed a state aid package. Claiming to call the Republican’s bluff (meaning that as much as they want more border security, Senate Republicans aren’t ever going to give the Democrats a victory on an immigration bill), Senate Democrats brought their version of a $600 million border bill to the floor—“fully funded” through fee increases to business visa categories. Instead of objecting, Senator McCain asked that he and Sen. Kyl be included as cosponsors of the bill. Senator Sessions came down to the floor to say that the bill isn’t enough, but a good start. In a Senate marked by the lack of unanimous consent, no one objected to the bill and it passed by a voice vote. The bill went back to the House for a vote mandated by jurisdictional funding issues, then back to the Senate where it was again passed by unanimous consent today.

Bluff called.

But governing isn’t about bluffing. In all of this heady back and forth and politicking and angling for election in November, the substantive issues of what must be done to fix our broken immigration system are once more lost. The irony is that some of the provisions in this mega-million border bill have strong bipartisan support—enhancing communications systems and creating forward operating bases for Border Patrol have long been championed by border legislators of both parties. For example, the bill:

  • Provides more money for drug enforcement actions to ATF actually addressing some of the real problems along the border and, if used wisely, could help reduce trafficking and the flow of drugs and money back and forth along the border.
  • Lacks some of the more controversial and questionable proposals such as funding for the fence or Operation Stonegarden (providing federal money to local law enforcement to conduct immigration enforcement).
  • Provides more money to the judiciary and immigration courts, which is a sensible acknowledgment that you can’t increase enforcement and ignore the added costs of doing business for the judicial and administrative branches.

But any good that might come of this is likely to be cancelled out by the political points that anti-immigration folks will score with these actions. Immigration activists have come out swinging, accusing the Democrats of knuckling under and ignoring the strong public support for a more comprehensive answer. Political operatives continue to insist that it was essential for Democrats to have a vote on enforcement. Senator Reid’s decision to call for an immediate vote on the bill suggests that the politicians didn’t think they can have this hanging over their heads until September. In short, politicians have made a $600 million dollar investment in their political futures.

And the game continues. President Obama, Sen. Schumer and Sen. Reid have all issued statements claiming that this border security bill is a good first step towards securing comprehensive immigration reform. Yet true to form, Sens. Kyl and McCain, eyeing the cards on the table, claimed the bill, although welcomed, still wasn’t enough. It’s hard to imagine that this will be the last call for emergency funds on the border, as Congress loves to tell its constituents that they are being made safer by money well-spent on border security. This is the real bluff that needs to be called—the one Congress keeps using on all of us.

Photo by sbisson.