It was a week of broken dreams and empty promises for immigration reform. The failure of the Senate to take up the DREAM Act illustrated once again that good policy isn’t enough to make legislation work. And over on the House side, GOP members unveiled their “Pledge to America,” a pledge that promises, among other things, more of the same deportation-driven strategies for resolving our immigration crisis. Although the public appears to have an insatiable appetite for talking tough on illegal immigration, if cable shows and Tea Party candidates are your measure of the public taste, catering to the worst of the public’s instincts is not a strategy for the long run.

The immigration components of the pledge promise:

  • Establish Operational Control of the Border: We must take action to secure our borders, and that action starts with enforcing our laws. We will ensure that the Border Patrol has the tools and authorities to establish operational control at the border and prohibit the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture from interfering with Border Patrol enforcement activities on federal lands.
  • Work with State and Local Officials to Enforce Our Immigration Laws: The problem of illegal immigration and Mexican drug cartels engaged in an increasingly violent conflict means we need all hands on deck to address this challenge. We will reaffirm the authority of state and local law enforcement to assist in the enforcement of all federal immigration laws.
  • Strengthen Visa Security: To stop terrorists like Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day bomber, we will require the Department of Homeland Security to review all visa applications at high-risk consular posts and prevent aliens from attempting to avoid deportation after having their visas revoked.

The topline messages—secure operational control of the border, work with state and local officials to enforce the law, and strengthen visa security emphasize security, enforcement, and strength. The accompanying descriptions suggest that the Border Patrol doesn’t get the money to do its job, that undocumented immigrants and drug cartels are engaged in a bloody conflict that requires all “hands on deck”, and that the State Department isn’t doing enough to screen terrorists.

In other words, the pledge recycles and updates the same talking points that have driven an immigration enforcement agenda for a decade. The immigration pledge promises to maintain the status quo, which is not just disappointing, but shortsighted.

First of all, it’s not what the public wants on immigration. People want solutions that go beyond tough talk. Nor does it reflect the reality of our broken immigration system or the priorities currently in place. What exactly is “operational control” of the border? What exactly would that cost? Doesn’t the $600 million border package Congress passed just before it left for August recess suggest that the one thing Congress knows how to do is throw money at the border? The federal government has spent billions of dollars on border and interior enforcement over the last several years ($3.0 billion in Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 alone—a nine-fold increase since FY 1992). While the number of undocumented border crossings is currently down (due, in large part, to the economic recession), research indicates that the number is likely to increase as the economy recovers—which begs the question, when will the border ever be secure enough to enact comprehensive immigration reform?

All hands on deck? Unless this suggests that the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are going to be pressed into service, it’s hard to imagine how many more ways the federal and state/local systems can become more intertwined. States and localities already work with the federal government to enforce our immigrations laws through programs like
Secure Communities, 287(g) agreements, Criminal Alien Program, Fugitive Operations Teams, and E-Verify.

But by mentioning “Mexican drug cartels” and illegal immigrants in the same breath, it’s clear that the “Pledge to America” has something else in mind. Support for new state and local enforcement laws, like Arizona’s controversial SB1070, seems to be the real innovation here. (Never mind that such laws undermine federal enforcement priorities, place a strain on scant state resources, and are increasingly found to be unconstitutional.)

Our immigration system is far more complex than most people realize and yet most people also understand that enforcement alone is not enough. A systematic overhaul of our immigration system—one that includes legalization for the roughly 11 million people already here, a reduction in immigration backlogs that keep families apart, a flexible and fair system for bringing in new workers, and reasonable enforcement—would create a solid base on which to build an immigration system that helps the country succeed in the 21st century. While parading enforcement-only around as a solution may stir the conservative base, it does nothing to solve the multi-faceted problems within the immigration system.

In a week that began with Senate Republicans complaining that the Democrats were playing politics with the military in order to pass the DREAM Act, House Republicans showed that they were equally capable of playing politics with immigration. As usual, this meant relying on tired rhetoric and a pledge to increase enforcement, without any concern for the consequences.

Photo by republicanconference.