The Illegal-Immigration Issue: A Compromise and a Commission

Two months and one day prior to the 7 November 2006 congressional elections, the American people are unhappy about Iraq, concerned about the increasingly belligerent actions and attitudes of North Korea and Iran, only slightly relieved by the still uneasy truce between Israel and Hezbollah, and not only confused and divided but also extremely angry about illegal immigration. In most previous congressional election years, domestic and economic matters took center stage – civil rights, law and order, inflation, political scandals, entitlement programs, and a long list of other “pocketbook” issues as well as such politically controversial topics as school busing, the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, and the “right to choose.” This year, Americans are looking beyond their borders. They also are looking at their borders, not only their land borders with Mexico and Canada but also their sea borders – i.e., U.S. coastal waters and, of greater importance, U.S. seaports – and what might reasonably be described as the nation’s air borders. During the Cold War it was generally assumed that Soviet long-range ballistic missiles were the principal airborne threat to the U.S. homeland. Five years after 9/11, all Americans know that passenger aircraft are a much more likely threat than incoming missiles. Billions of dollars have been spent in the last five years to improve security at U.S. airports and in U.S. commercial aircraft. Some encouraging progress has been made, but much remains to be done. Relatively little attention has been paid, though, to improving the security of the nation’s seaports – which, despite the heroic efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard and a few other DHS agencies, are still much more vulnerable to attack than American airports. Moreover, a successful attack against any major U.S. seaport could kill tens of thousands of citizens and cause irreparable damage to the nation’s economy. There probably is not enough time for the current Congress to take any meaningful action to provide further protection at U.S. airports and/or seaports. There is enough time, though, for Congress to take at least a few faltering first steps to protect the nation’s land borders. It can do this by enacting legislation that would reduce, if only incrementally at first, the continuing inflow of illegal immigrants. Here it should be conceded that it is unlikely that any of the omnibus “immigration reform” bills that have been introduced over the past 18 months could or would be passed either before the November elections or in a lame-duck session after the elections. Nonetheless, numerous polls and surveys show that most Americans – including almost all members of both the House and Senate – believe that illegal immigration is one of the most important problems facing the United States today. Most Americans also are angry, rightly or wrongly, that neither the president nor the Congress has been able to stop the inflow. And if the president and Congress won’t act, the voters will. The issue is an extremely complex one, though – and any solution or “reform program” adopted will have huge economic, political, social, and security ramifications. There are two principal stumbling blocks: how to reduce and eventually stop the incoming flow of illegal migrants; and what to do about the estimated 11 million illegal migrants already in the United States. Consensus on the latter matter is probably impossible at this late stage of the current Congress. There does, however, seem to be somewhat half-hearted agreement that the building of a high-tech “wall,” fence, or other physical barrier along the U.S. southern border may not completely stop illegal migration from Mexico, but it would reduce it – perhaps significantly. Given the limited time remaining in the current Congress, authorizing the building of the wall, and appropriating the start-up funds needed to begin construction, might be the most that could be expected – and it would at least be a start in the right direction. Congress might also consider authorizing the president to appoint an independent commission – somewhat like the 9/11 Commission that did such an outstanding job in such a short time – that would recommend the next steps that should be taken. To many Americans, the appointment of a commission would seem to be a copout. And it would be in some ways. But it would tell the American people that the president and the Congress may not agree on the specifics of a long-term solution for a long-festering problem, but they do agree that that problem can no longer be ignored. Moreover, unlike the president and the Congress, an independent commission can and should focus not on the political and emotional aspects of the illegal-immigration issue but on simply determining the facts – and, from those facts, developing achievable recommendations that would be in the best interest of the nation as a whole. The next Congress, and the administration, would be well advised to accept and act upon those recommendations.

James D. Hessman

James D. Hessman is former editor in chief of both the Navy League’s Sea Power Magazine and the League’s annual Almanac of Seapower. Prior to that dual assignment he was senior editor of Armed Forces Journal International.



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