As Washington postures and a former Florida governor enters the fray, the reality of dysfunctional U.S. immigration policy continues to play out in communities like Animas, N.M., and El Paso, Texas. The experiences there underscore that border security alone will never be enough. President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of senators, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, need to continue to push for a comprehensive and rational immigration policy that also deals with the 11 million illegal immigrants already here.
Security at the border between the United States and Mexico is far from perfect. The motivated and the ingenious still find ways to cross illegally, and many bring contraband. But there are far fewer of them, due to a near doubling of investment on border security since 2005 to $11.7 billion. As the Tampa Bay Times' Alex Leary reported last week, increased enforcement now nets just one-third the illegal immigrants it did in 2000. Residents of border areas have seen the impact, including a decrease in crime. But 18-foot barricades now divide what were once cross-border communities. Local American businesses lament the loss of Mexican customers and the difficulty moving goods across the border. And there's less available labor. There's been a social toll as well, with an untold number of families divided. One young man who earned good money helping to build the fence in 2007 told Leary, "Let's move on to other immigration issues."
Unfortunately, that's proving difficult, even after anti-immigrant rhetoric from Republicans undermined their election results in 2012. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, long a voice of reason among Republicans when it comes to immigration policy, has joined the fray. But he has become less helpful at the very moment when he could do the most good. His latest book, Immigration Wars, suggests a less generous position toward illegal immigrants than he has championed in the past. He now says he favors a path to permanent legal residency but not necessarily citizenship, sounding less like a leader on this issue than a politician weighing his options.
In Washington, there is still the need to pander to those who insist that the country must "first secure the border" even as the progress there has been so obvious. Congress should focus on what else needs to be done. As Leary reported, 40 percent of illegal immigrants now in the country entered legally but ignored the deadline to go home.
The right ideas are in play, including creating a probation period for illegal immigrants to come forward, pay a fine and back taxes, and pass a background check as a first step toward citizenship. Younger immigrants brought to the country by their parents would have an easier path. There are also plans to increase requirements on employers to ensure they are hiring only legal immigrants.
More than a quarter-century after President Ronald Reagan signed the country's last comprehensive reform on immigration, its time to do more than just secure the border.