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On the Fence

The issue of immigration reform is used, abused and still unresolved.
 
 
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For about ten days, the White House has been desperately trying to change the topic of conversation. Like nervous hosts at a dinner party gone horribly wrong, Bush and his spin doctors have been trying to distract attention from their embarrassing set of friends: Scooter Libby, Karl Rove, Harriet Miers, and, to a lesser degree, Tom DeLay. They've nominated Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court. They talked about the scary bird flu. And there are hints that they may soon try to take back control of the public dialogue by introducing a new get-tough border security plan.

The President is expected to tour of the southwest in December to discuss his plans to beef up border security, and Congress is hoping to debate immigration reform legislation in December. Bush, of course, received little support for his guest-worker plan when he introduced it in 2004, and it didn't fare much better when he resurrected the plan last month. But with an estimated 10 or 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, another 500,000 or so crossing the Mexico-U.S. border each year, and a self-appointed army of Minutemen who are taking matters into their own hands, discussions about immigration need to be more than a distraction technique.

Lawmakers from all walks have proposed a wide range of solutions, some half-baked, some downright mean, but there is at least one that makes some sense. Currently on the table are the "Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act," sponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Jon Kyl (R-Az.), which focuses on enforcement (i.e. how to deport people faster) and does not include any provisions on worker protections. Another bill, called the "Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005," has been introduced both in the Senate by Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Az.), and in the House by Rep. Jim Kolbe (R.-Az.), Jeff Flake (R.-Az.) and Luis Guiterrez (D.-Il.). The bill raises caps on the number of unskilled workers allowed into the country and makes it somewhat easier for some categories of immigrants to get green cards. The biggest change, however, is a provision that would create a temporary work visa program. Immigrants would be allowed to live legally in the U.S. for six years, provided they are regularly employed and do not commit any criminal offenses. After 4 years in the states, they may qualify for permanent status if they are able to meet a work requirement, clear additional security checks, and pay a bunch of fees, and meet an English language requirement. While the bill is not perfect by any means, it has garnered wide support, including from a number of immigrants' rights groups.

But, of course, SOME people just don't like the kind of comprehensive legislation that attempts to change the "catch and release" mentality of our current system. Enter Congressmen Duncan Hunter (R-Ca.) and Virgil Goode (R-Va.), who last week introduced the "TRUE Enforcement and Border Security Act." A more appropriate name for the legislation would be the "Build a Big Fence to Keep the Pesky Mexicans Out Act." You see, a fence was built along the San Diego-Tijuana border and it was effective in curbing illegal drug transports at that particular spot. Senator Hunter attempted to explain how this could be duplicated on a much larger scale. Here, he somewhat comically explains his idea to Wolf Blitzer on the Situation Room last week (Nov. 3):

WOLF BLITZER: Let me read to you what John Cornyn, Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, Mr. Chairman -- he's the chairman of the Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee in the U.S. Senate -- has said October 10: "I think a border fence is futile because I don't think you can build a wall high enough or wide enough to keep people out of the country who have no hope or opportunity where they live." That's an argument you hear not only from Cornyn, but from a lot of other people as well.

HUNTER: I give the same answer to Senator Cornyn that I gave to a Border Patrolman who said "I can climb that fence." I said "come on out and do it, and we'll stop it right now." And he said "I'll get back with you." Senator Cornyn climbs that fence, we'll shut it down.

While I have admittedly cut these quotes to include only the funny parts, I really didn't have to cut much. Later in the program. CNN correspondent Tom Foreman also expressed some doubts about Hunter's proposal:

FOREMAN: (pointing to a map that included an area near Nogales, Arizona that did have a wall) I stood right at that spot one day doing a story on illegal crossings. All of a sudden, I heard the wall rattle. A man appeared at the top of it. I said "hola." He said "hola," jumped down, and walked into America. Congressman, how will your wall stop that? They've got a wall; it doesn't work.

HUNTER: Mr. Foreman, I invite you to come out to San Diego with me. And the point of our fences -- it's not a wall. It's a double fence. In fact, it's designed for a triple fence. The smuggler or the person who crosses illegally has to cross the primary, which you have in Nogales. He then has to cross a 50-yard Border Patrol road. And he then has to scale a 15-foot high fence with a large overhang.

When Blitzer thanked the Congressman for coming on the show -- you guessed it -- Hunter invited Blitzer to visit the fence, saying "Thank you, Wolf. Come on down with your pole vaulters." Later this month, look for Sen. Hunters' invite to his wall-scaling contest. Now, the stage is set truly for President Bush to talk about immigration. After Sen. Hunter's show of brilliant policymaking, anything Dubya says will be genius.

Maria Luisa Tucker is a staff writer at AlterNet and associate editor of the : Columbia Journal of American Studies.