Bordering on Disaster

A national immigration policy requires a level of collaboration that none of the major players is willing to risk.
July 2007
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

As the prospects for immigration reform seem to melt away in the summer heat of Washington, it's worth asking what happened. Why has it been impossible to reach agreement--even within the majority party--on an urgent issue that touches every level of government in the United States?

What happened is pretty straightforward. As interest groups on all sides of the issue began to clamor for action, President Bush acted as he tends to act in such situations: He floated his idea of what immigration reform ought to look like without doing much of the groundwork necessary for building support around such a divisive issue.

The most dramatic demonstration of this was his announcement that he'd be placing 6,000 National Guard troops along the Mexican border. It's unlikely that the use of the National Guard will do anything much to reduce the flow of illegal immigration; economic forces will continue to push and pull an endless supply of illegal immigrants into the U.S., no matter how many law enforcement or military personnel they have to dodge, how wide a river they have to swim or how high a wall they have to climb over or tunnel under. Desperation knows no barriers.

But that isn't what made Bush's National Guard decision remarkable. What made it remarkable was that fact that for three of the four governors most directly affected, the announcement was a complete surprise. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano received a courtesy call a week or so ahead of time, but New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and California and Texas governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rick Perry-- both Republicans--were left off the contact list altogether. Even if they had been contacted, a courtesy call is no substitute for any sort of substantive consultation.

And perhaps that's the most important symbol of the way the country has handled one of the most politically volatile and consequential domestic issues to face it in years. Immigration is being dealt with on a employer-by-employer, locality-by-locality, state-by-state, federal-agency-by-agency basis, with scarcely any evidence of a desire on the part of the major interests to work together.

The pleas of a handful of angry mayors and county officials to Congress notwithstanding, there has been no coordinated consultation among or between federal, state or local officials about how to deal with the millions of illegal immigrants who are already here or the new ones who arrive every day. The leading business organizations have been equally willing to avoid responsibility. And yet it's an issue that absolutely demands intergovernmental and public-private discussion and collaboration.

What we have instead is this: States are shipping Guard troops to the Mexican border (and all of us are paying for a wall of so-far undetermined length), while other federal agencies go their own separate ways on immigration policy enforcement. Some states are passing laws that strip illegal immigrants of access to state-funded services; others are passing laws that guarantee such access. Some localities are designing ways to achieve maximum harassment of illegal immigrants and the businesses that employ them; others are building day-labor centers to accommodate illegal workers. And finally, employers are being thrown into the position of either continuing to look the other way on illegal immigration or helping to enforce federal policy at the risk of putting themselves out of operation.

It is unfair to lay all of this directly at the feet of the president--the immigration mess represents failure to develop a pragmatic response to a serious problem across a wide swath of interests, public and private. But if anybody is going to make a cooperative effort at reform possible, it has to be the nation's chief executive.

If the White House were to undertake the fundamental job of reaching out to state and local officials, and bringing key business interests into the mix, there's at least a reasonable chance that a coalition of interests would emerge capable of moving a reform package that involves more than just deploying troops and building walls. Regrettably, that sort of leadership seems to be out of the question at the moment.