The Truth About Immigration Reform, Border Security, and Where the GOP Stands On It All

Amidst all the theatrics and posturing that has revolved around comprehensive immigration reform discussions, very few have bothered to take an objective view of the Senate "Gang of Eight" bill in question and explain to the public what it will and won't solve. Like anything else in Washington, the bill has become another victim of politicization and a battle of public relations management between the parties.

So what will happen with immigration reform? And, most importantly, what do Americans want from this sort of legislation? In essence, this: Several polls prove the clear majority of Republicans support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants but also show most Americans believe Washington should fully secure the border first.

First, let me start off by saying I support comprehensive immigration reform as a goal. I’m the son of an immigrant. My father emigrated from a small Greek village outside of Tripoli, Arcadia, called Giokareika – and yes, that’s where my last name comes from. Like millions of other people from around the world, it was his dream to come to America. He had always heard stories of the U.S. being a land of opportunity where risk and hard work were rewarded, and where new wealth was created routinely for every generation (as opposed to what he saw growing up in Greece: the same old wealth staying in the hands of the same old families generation after generation). He basically saw America as the land of infinite upward mobility. Upon graduating medical school (in massive debt), he took his spot in line after his student visa had expired, waited his turn, and passed the naturalization test to become a legal citizen on December 7, 1982.

I thank God I was born here instead of in Greece, where I would probably have zero opportunity at my age under the current state of its economy.

There are countless other success stories in this country like my father’s. Without a doubt, America has the most generous and humanitarian immigration system in the world. No other country is as tolerant or as accessible for emigrants as the U.S.

Yet there are also millions of immigrants here illegally as well. But while many Americans have the image of all illegal immigrants being Latino-Americans who crossed the Mexican border in the dark, what many in Washington and the media fail to remind the public is roughly 40% of illegal immigrants are ones that flew over here on authorized visas and have stayed here beyond their visa’s expiration, according to Pew Research (although it’s only a rough estimate because the government has no system for tracking visitors who stay past their visa expiration date).

I’ve already covered the politics end of immigration reform extensively. In short, turns out the Latino-American vote didn’t make a difference at all in the 2012 election. Latino-Americans broke for Barack Obama 71%-27%. As statistician guru Nate Silver of The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog illustrates, even if those numbers were completely reversed and Mitt Romney had won 71% of the Latino-American vote (unheard of for a Republican candidate, the highest ever achieved was 44% by George W. Bush), Romney still would’ve lost. This is because the Latino-American voter turnout was so low – less than half. According to the Census Bureau’s 2012 election survey, African American voter turnout was 66.2% (an all-time high), white voter turnout was 64.1% (down from 67.2% in 2004 and marking the first time in history that African American voter turnout surpassed white voter turnout), and Latino-American turnout was only 48%.

As I have also covered extensively, Latino-American voter sentiment goes way beyond immigration policy. According to Pew Research, 75% of Latino-Americans say they prefer a big government which provides more services to a small one providing fewer services. By contrast, just 41% of the public at large voice support for more government.

Silver himself concludes that if racial voting trends stay the way they are, legalizing 11 million illegal Latino and Asian immigrants will become an “electoral bonanza” for the Democratic Party.

Politics aside, let’s analyze the immigration reform bill that the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” passed by a bipartisan vote of 68-32. Essentially, the bill would create a program to help the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. gain legal status in conjunction with efforts to secure the border by having to wait 13 years before becoming naturalized, pay all back taxes, learn English, no legalization for people with criminal records, and citizenship or permanent residence only after the border becomes fully secure. The stricter border security provisions include increasing the number of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and officers as well as construction of a double layer fence along certain high risk parts of the Mexico–U.S. border.

According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) score card of the bill, the Senate’s bill, as is, will only decrease future illegal immigration levels by 25%. The CBO estimates legalizing 11 million illegal immigrants and bringing in workers will cost $262 billion in new tax credits and other spending to cover the costs of implementation, but that’s more than covered by the $459 billion in higher taxes paid by newly legalized illegal immigrants and future workers – contributing a total net gain of $197 billion in revenue.

However, the CBO said it couldn’t calculate whether the costs would grow in future decades, when the immigrants who would get legalized under the bill would eventually be eligible for Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements (most illegal immigrants today are estimated to be of working age).

But one major question I have with the CBO’s analysis is if it predicts all 11 million illegal immigrants will be working full-time and paying taxes.

Another analysis from the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) shows that high percentages of legal and illegal immigrants in America are drawing benefits from at least one major form of welfare. Using Census Bureau data from 2010 and 2011, the center analyzed more than 50 million legal and illegal immigrants and their American-born children under 18 years of age. Large numbers, the study found, are struggling in poverty, reliant on welfare, and uninsured.

Welfare enrollment was highest for households headed by immigrants originating in Mexico, with 57% participation. Guatemalan immigrants were second (55%) and Dominicans were third (54%). Immigrants with the lowest rate of welfare participation were those from the United Kingdom (6%), Germany (10%) and Canada (13%), according to the report.

Compared with households headed by U.S. natives, twice as many headed by immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years access welfare programs. Also, 36% of immigrant-headed households overall are on welfare programs (primarily food stamps and Medicaid) compared to 23% of native households.

The CIS identified the two biggest factors responsible for most of the high immigrant poverty rate (and it wasn’t legal status or lack of work ethic): limited education and lack of fluent English. Fully 28% of adult immigrants have not completed high school, compared to just 7% of natives.

The CBO seems to be making a very large assumption with its estimate that all 11 million illegal immigrants will be working full-time, paying taxes and not collecting any welfare.

There is also another legitimate concern coming from many critics of the promises made to pass this bill: “We’ve heard all this before.” The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) that was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan sought to accomplish many of the same goals this bill claims it will do: enhance border security, reduce illegal immigration levels and legalized (at that time 3 million) illegal immigrants with the penalty of a fine, back taxes due, and admission of guilt.

Twenty-seven years and 11 million illegal immigrants later, the IRCA clearly didn’t reduce the inflow of illegal immigrants to the U.S. Much like when Congress made deals in the past to increase taxes in exchange for spending cuts (the tax hikes always came immediately, but spending cuts never materialized), critics believe that while amnesty was certainly granted to millions of illegal immigrants overnight, the increased border security never materialized.

However, the number of CBP agents along the border has increased since 1986. According to PolitiFact, there were 3,555 agents assigned to the southern border in 1992. By 2000, that number had increased to 8,580 and more than doubled to 20,119 by 2010. But clearly increasing the number of CBP agents alone hasn’t stopped the number of illegal immigrants from increasing (although it peaked in 2007 at 12 million just before the Great Recession). Indeed, according to a study from the Council of Foreign Relations, CBP only stops about 50% of all illegal border-crossings from Mexico – even with the increased border security.

With these concerns in mind, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has declared the Senate’s immigration reform bill dead on arrival, but has promised to pass immigration reform measures from the House that tackles each aspect of the problem piece by piece – starting with fully securing the border. Securing the border first is an approach at least 6 out of 10 Americans support (including 6 out of 10 Latino-Americans) according to several polls: 68% according to Fox News, 64% according to Rasmussen, and 62% according to CNN.

Despite claims from liberal critics in the media, blogosphere and Washington, Republicans are clearly NOT anti-immigration. To the contrary, according to Gallup, 86% of Republicans – the same percentage as that of Democrats, said they would back legislation allowing immigrants living illegally in the U.S. to become citizens after a long waiting period if they paid taxes and a penalty, passed a criminal background check, and learned English. In fact, The New York Times noted that polls that describe the many requirements an illegal immigrant would have to satisfy before gaining citizenship find higher GOP support than polls that do not mention the requirements in detail, or at all. And Pew Research found that a large majority of Republicans (70%) think it would be better for the economy if illegal immigrants became legal workers, about as many (69%) said undocumented immigrants are “hard workers who should have an opportunity to stay in the U.S.,” and fully 76% say it would be unrealistic to deport everyone in the country illegally.

So rather than playing the game of winning the PR battle and trying to demonize either party’s beliefs or intentions on immigration reform, the data clearly proves that there is a common sense, bipartisan approach to achieving comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate bill established an ambitious framework of requirements that clear majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents support. The majority of Americans also support working on fully securing the border first so that we don’t have a repeat of 1986. If both sides are sincere about achieving this goal in a bipartisan fashion, there should be no reason why we can’t pass this piece and piece.