I've been writing about border issues for 30 years. I don't think I've ever seen a clearer demonstration of the ideological chasm between Republicans and Democrats on border issues than Thursday's House immigration subcommittee hearing on the surge of Central Americans across the Southwest border.
For Republicans, the crisis is a failure of prevention and enforcement. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) made that clear in his opening statement as chairman of the full Judiciary Committee:
Record numbers of unaccompanied alien minors and adults traveling with minors are again surging across our southern border, overwhelming federal and state resources, creating a border security nightmare, and ensuring record profits for the criminal organizations that control the drug and human smuggling and trafficking business along the border. ... With every successful entry and reunification, it encourages thousands more to illegally enter and further degrades our border security.
For the Democrats, the central issue is the moral and legal obligation to protect the rights of the Central Americans to seek asylum as they flee violence in their home countries. As the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Zoe Lofgren of California, said:
Women and children fleeing violence are a vulnerable population and they should be treated with heightened sensitivity, awareness and comprehensive access to counsel. We have a moral as well as domestic and international legal obligation to ensure that no mother or child is sent back to a country where they face torture, or death. Every effort must be made to ensure that this vulnerable population has access to counsel and full due process protections prior to deportation.
Lofgren said the influx would continue as long as the Central Americans suffered the misery of poverty, violence, and governments too corrupt or incompetent to provide basic security. She characterized the crisis as "a humanitarian, refugee issue and not an illegal immigration phenomenon."
South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, the immigration subcommittee chairman, charged the Obama administration with failure to manage the crisis. He pointed to reports that migrants had told Border Patrol agents they came north because they had heard that if they made it across the border they would be allowed to stay in the country.
"In other words, no adequate steps have been taken to halt the surge or discourage aliens from attempting to enter the United States," Gowdy said. "We must at some point send a clear message to potential unlawful immigrants" that they will not be allowed to stay in the United States.
In response to Gowdy's call for tough-minded resolve, Michigan Democrat John Conyers called for big-hearted compassion. Said Conyers: "People need to live free from an endless cycle of violence and persecution. ... We must address the root causes of the hemisphere crisis. ... We have a moral as well as a legal obligation to provide asylum seekers the opportunity to apply for humanitarian protection."
Thirty years ago Democrats and Republicans managed to bridge the much narrower ideological divide of that era. Congress passed and President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, calling it a solution to illegal immigration. IRCA was built on a hard-won compromise that promised to combine protection in the form of amnesty with prevention in the form of worksite enforcement.
IRCA, of course, proved to be a colossal failure that resulted in a massive expansion of illegal immigration. It created demographic, political, and cultural facts that have amplified demands for protection and muffled calls for protection. The moderate Democrats who used to see illegal immigration as a threat to be opposed have been replaced by ideologues who see it as a humanitarian cause to be defended and accommodated.
Luis Gutierrez, the Illinois Democrat who is the most ardent congressional defender of illegal immigrants, offered this visionary suggestion at Thursday's hearing: "We should create a system that allows people to come, not through coyotes, not through drug smugglers, not through human traffickers, but with a plane ticket, with a visa, a legal way to come to the United States, so that we can have an organized fashion in which we have our immigration policy set forth."
Gutierrez's field of vision did not include current immigration policy, which has made visas a form of congressional pork to please friends and contributors and already provides green cards to about 1 million immigrants every year.
Gutierrez had some fun at the Republicans' expense as he referred to their decision to invite Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, to testify about the situation along the border. Judd, whose organization is the union for border agents, told the committee that when "laws are broken on a large scale, chaos is the byproduct. And make no mistake; chaos defines parts of our southwest border today."
Said Gutierrez, "It's always good to see a labor union that the Republicans actually invite to come and give testimony." It was a sly reminder that Republicans and labor unions have a generally antagonistic relationship and that most unions now favor "comprehensive immigration reform" to provide another amnesty.
Of course, the labor movement used to be a militant foe of illegal immigration, regarding it as a threat to American workers. In 1986, for example, labor pushed its Democratic friends in Congress to support the amnesty-for-enforcement bargain embodied in IRCA
Labor at that time believed that IRCA could succeed in stopping illegal immigration. Only after enforcement was thwarted did labor reverse positions, calling for an end to worksite enforcement and a new amnesty. In other words, labor decided that if it couldn't beat illegal immigrants, it would try to organize them.