Last week, Democrats introduced a $600 million border security bill that was passed under unanimous consent — reportedly, much to their surprise. The legislation includes $176 million for 1,000 new Border Patrol agents, $89 million for 500 additional customs and immigration personnel, $32 million to deploy drones, and $196 million for the Justice Department’s work along the border. Given that the House of Representatives may take up the proposal when it reconvenes from recess tomorrow, it begs the question of whether throwing another $600 million at the border will make a difference, practically or politically.
In practical terms, many experts have argued that focusing on the border may have some grave unintended consequences. Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey and his colleagues, Jorge Durand and Nolan J. Malone, have carefully studied the effects of border security measures over the past ten years. What they found is that “border enforcement may have increased the size of the permanent Mexican population in the United States by a factor of nearly four.” That’s because a tighter border also constricts the movement of labor. In other words, undocumented workers who may have previously entered the U.S. on a seasonal basis chose to stay put as it became harder and more dangerous to leave and come back. Another effect that the experts don’t mention is the increasing profitability of human smuggling. The harder it is to cross the border, the more dependent migrants become on paying criminal smugglers to get them across the border and the more lucrative the human smuggling business becomes. And, as Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) points out, “[a]s we have done more to secure our borders, alien smuggling organizations have increasingly become more bold, violent and dangerous.”
Apparently, the Democrats’ introduction of the border bill was also guided by political motivations. In the past, Republicans have rejected similar bills, arguing for much larger bills paid for with unused economic stimulus funds. Roll Call reports that Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) initially proposed last week’s legislation and asked for unanimous consent, anticipating the Republicans would oppose it. Schumer intended “[to] expose whether people want to secure the borders or just want an issue” for this fall’s elections. According to Roll Call, most Democrats didn’t think Republicans would approve the bill and expected to prove a political point. However, not only did Republicans vote for the bill, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) added themselves as co-sponsors. At that point, Schumer pivoted, stating, “This bipartisan effort shows we are serious about making the border more secure than ever…Now our attention must turn to comprehensive reform, which is the only way to fully address the problem of illegal immigration.” However, as immigration advocates note, those opposed to comprehensive immigration reform will endlessly continue to demand more border security as a way to permanently stall actual solutions. They claim that “passing a stand-alone border bill eliminated a bargaining chip for Democrats.”
Ultimately, more enforcement without reform is a waste of limited resources and money. The border is already supposedly “safer than its ever been” and the best way to make it even safer is to provide economic migrants with the legal channels to enter the U.S. so border patrol can focus more on actual threats to public safety. While it’s true that it will be harder for Republicans to argue that Democrats are turning a blind eye on border security, they’ll continue to raise the benchmarks and generate more unintended consequences. If lawmakers really want to chip away at the problem in absence of immigration reform, experts suggest their best bet is to promote workers’ rights and the vigorous enforcement labor laws — an action which may actually succeed in catching the Republicans off-message and off-guard.