Blog Archive

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Immigration law in Arizona is no model for Texas

Sept. 18, 2010

Senate Bill 1070 enacted by the Arizona state Legislature has become a focal point of the national debate on immigration. Much of the attention has rightfully been focused on concerns about both border enforcement and racial profiling. Yet in spite of honest efforts to avoid racial profiling, Hispanics, including many Americans, are far more likely to be subject to questioning about their immigration status than others. In response, the U.S. Department of Justice has successfully intervened and convinced U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton to strike down some of the more controversial provisions.

But a basic question remains. Should the Arizona law be a model for Texas and other states? After all, this has grown to be a major domestic issue in this year's congressional elections. As a result, there is a critical need for an honest debate about immigration policy.

Sadly, legitimate debate has been hijacked by political figures in Arizona and elsewhere and by self-proclaimed experts on talk radio and television. They portray Arizona as a state "under siege" with a "tsunami of criminal aliens" whose international border is so porous that some claim it is wide open for invasion. Some go so far as to suggest that we should pull troops from Iraq and Afghanistan to protect Arizona. In Texas, there is an increasing drumbeat that an Arizona-type solution would be good public policy here.

Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. It should be obvious that when criminal aliens are arrested, they are subject to our judicial system. They are prosecuted and convicted when found guilty. Before their release, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is notified and they are systematically deported. As a result, the deportation of criminal aliens is at a historic high and has been a priority of the Obama administration. Numerous systems are in place to guarantee that criminal aliens don't fall between the cracks.

In Houston, we've adopted the Secured Communities program at municipal jails. City law enforcement officials automatically determine the status of detained individuals. If they have immigration violations, an automatic "immigration hold" is placed on them so that they are not released before ICE officials have an opportunity to detain and deport them. Harris County has an even more aggressive program.

So what would the Arizona law add to what is already being done locally? The Arizona law says a person can be arrested solely because there is a "reasonable suspicion" that he or she is in the United States without proper documentation. The statute further says that a law enforcement officer who fails to detain an individual — based upon a "reasonable suspicion" that they are in the United States without proper documentation - is subject to being sued in court by any citizen. This law is opposed by police chiefs in Arizona as bad public policy. They question giving the priority of scant law enforcement resources to arrest individuals who are committing no crime other than a prior entry without the proper documentations, often a decade or two earlier, and are nonviolent.

Make no mistake. If enacted, this law will be used primarily to arrest mothers driving their children to school or going to work as a waitress at your favorite restaurant or to arrest a father driving to work on one of your favorite construction- or road-expansion projects or to care for your lawn. The Arizona police chiefs ask a good question Texans should consider. Why should the state take financial responsibility for enforcing U.S. immigration laws that treat both those who overstay their immigration status and, for the most part, those who entered the country illegally without proper documentation as a civil matter and not even as a crime?

Furthermore, the basic assumption that the Arizona law was necessary because of an invasion of criminal aliens is patently false. Every statistic shows that Arizona's crime has dropped significantly in the past 17 years and that the crime rate in major cities in Arizona is far lower than most major U.S. cities. According to the state Bureau of Justice statistics, the violent crime rate in Arizona has been declining since it peaked in 1993 and it is now lower than at any time since the early 1970s. Politicians and TV and radio entertainers through their rhetoric have caused the public to erroneously project Mexican drug violence onto Arizona.

Meanwhile, illegal border crossings are down significantly. The Tucson Border Patrol section apprehensions of persons illegally crossing have fallen from 600,000 in 2000 to 241,000 in 2009 in spite of the fact that increased enforcement along the Texas border has forced more individuals percentage-wise to enter illegally across the Arizona border.

Further, claims that America has an unenforced border are simply false. The budget for border enforcement went from $9.1 billion in 2003 to $17.2 billion this year. The annual budget for the U.S. Border Patrol alone has increased 714 percent since 1992. The deportations by the Obama administration are significantly higher than in the past. In addition, President Obama recently sent 1,200 additional National Guard troops to the Mexican border and has obtained $600 million in additional funding. Several sophisticated $10 million drones will also be patrolling the border joining other high tech detections systems. One could, in fact, argue that the U.S.-Mexico border is more secure than ever before.

Still, some politicians regularly say that the Arizona law is a response to a federal failure to secure our border. But rather than misleading the American public, our elected officials should support legislation that would actually work - not just recite divisive and misleading political rhetoric.

Fortunately, there are reasonable alternatives. Broad comprehensive immigration reform, first proposed by President George W. Bush in 2001, is supported by the Greater Houston Partnership and virtually every law enforcement agency. If enacted, it would control illegal immigration in a fashion far more effective than Arizona type laws. Since 99 percent of all individuals who cross the border do so either for employment or to join a working member of their family, fixing the employment-verification system by which one establishes that they are authorized to work in the United States would be 100 times more effective than any Arizona-like proposal. As President Bush proposed, we also need a guest-worker program so that needed workers have real options to enter legally when employers are able to prove the unavailability of American workers. He recognized it was better to have the Border Patrol focus on detaining criminal and dangerous aliens rather than chasing strawberry pickers, nannies and home builders.

For security purposes, it is far better that the large undocumented population estimated to be 10.8 million be required to register. Those without a criminal record would be eligible to acquire not U.S. citizenship, not even lawful permanent residency or "green card" status, but simply temporary legal status that would allow them to work and travel legally in exchange for which they pay back taxes and a significant fine for having violated immigration laws. In order to extend such status, they would be required to take and pass English language and American civics courses. Would we really want an Arizona type atmosphere where, even if it were logistically and cost feasible, as a priority our Houston police would seek to detain an estimated 400,000 undocumented workers in our region, which would both devastate our economy and overwhelm our criminal justice system?

Sadly, the national furor over the Arizona law has turned the serious debate over immigration reform into an irrelevant side show. It is time to ask our elected representatives to deal with this critical issue in a responsible fashion. Our Texas congressional delegation members - Republican and Democrat alike - should take the lead in a bipartisan fashion, just as they have done with other serious challenges facing our city, particularly NASA and the Port of Houston funding.

No state and no community are more affected by illegal immigration than Texas and Houston. Resolving this problem will require our best and brightest solutions. And those can only be accomplished if we have an honest discussion about it.

Foster is chairman of the Immigration Task Force of the Greater Houston Partnership, co-chairman of the immigration law firm of FosterQuan LLP and was President George W. Bush's principal policy adviser on immigration in the 2000 campaign.