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Monday, March 18, 2013
Questions about border commission
March 18, 2013
by Kevin Robillard
The security of the U.S.-Mexico border, and the fate of the estimated 11 million people illegally living north of it in the U.S., may end up in the hands of that most Washington of institutions: a commission.
The recently announced outline of a bipartisan immigration reform plan from the Senate’s Gang of Eight calls for a commission made up of border-state governors, state attorneys general and “community leaders” to evaluate border security.
The commission is seen as crucial by both Republicans and Democrats because illegal immigrants could only start on the pathway to citizenship envisioned by the Gang of Eight once the border is deemed secure, and the panel is expected to have an important — although still largely undefined — role in making that determination.
”Border security is what the conservatives are really going to be focused on, and the commission is the cost of the pathway to citizenship,” said Rebecca Tallent, a former chief of staff for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who now chairs the Bipartisan Policy Center’s immigration project. “How do you thread that needle? How do you make the border commission a viable, realistic sign-off that the Republicans can support? But how do you make it so that a person who might oppose comprehensive immigration reform doesn’t have veto power?”
But some of the same factors that have hamstrung panels charged with solving the nation’s fiscal challenges (see: the Supercommittee, Simpson-Bowles) could plague a border commission, too, critics warn.
Republicans and Democrats both assume the other side is playing politics and have fundamental disagreements over how secure the border is right now, as well as who should serve on such a commission and just how much power it would have.
The Gang of Eight’s bare-bones plan includes just two sentences describing the commission, and the group has been tight-lipped about further details.
“We recognize that Americans living along the Southwest border are key to recognizing and understanding when the border is truly secure,” the bipartisan framework says. “Our legislation will create a commission comprised of governors, attorneys general, and community leaders living along the Southwest border to monitor the progress of securing our border and to make a recommendation regarding when the bill’s security measures outlined in the legislation are completed.”
For a body with such potential power, what is so far known about the commission is greatly outweighed by what isn’t. But what’s clear is that Republicans and Democrats working on immigration reform have very different ideas about the most important aspects of how the commission would function. It is expected that the Gang of Eight will flesh out its vision for the commission and other aspects of reform when it unveils more specifics about the immigration plan in the near future.
Under the plan, state attorneys general and governors from Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California would serve on the commission.
Democrats are concerned that the GOP border-state members could outnumber Democrats on the panel and they are fearful that fiercely anti-illegal immigration, pro-border security Republican governors in particular — like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Arizona Gov. Janet Brewer — could torpedo the commission’s work and block the pathway to citizenship.
Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who represents El Paso, Texas, told POLITICO he would prefer a commission made up of border-area House members or local officials. (Eight Democrats represent the border in the lower chamber, compared to only one Republican.) And Marshall Fitz, the head of immigration policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said logical appointees would include small and big city mayors along the border.
As for filling out the commission with “community leaders,” it’s unclear how they would be selected and appointed or even how many would sit on the panel.
The GOP remains wary.
“Who’s going to appoint this commission?” Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) asked on Laura Ingraham’s radio show recently. “Are we going to have a commission full of Janet Napolitanos? That’s really going to ensure enforcement, right?”
For their part, Republicans have instead suggested tapping law enforcement officials to fill out the group.
Fitz said a commission with diverse membership could kick-start a dialogue about the border, one that would continue even after reform gets under way.
“What we’re having is sort of two camps talking past each other, and the advantage of having the commission, with prominent people from all the border states, is that you could have, at least theoretically, a more robust conversation about the state of the border,” Fitz said. “The demands today won’t be the demands tomorrow. It’s a dynamic area, and there’s an evolving set of analyses that have to be made about costs and benefits of different approaches.”
Perhaps the most pressing issue for those crafting the commission is this: How much power will it have, if any? Will it be an advisory group that issues nothing more than recommendations, or will it have real authority to issue a decree on whether the border is secure, thereby allowing the pathway to citizenship process to begin for millions, or finding the border is porous and stalling the move toward citizenship for illegal immigrants?
After concern from Democrats that the commission could turn into a roadblock, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters that the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security — and not the commission — would make the final call.
“Holding immigration reform hostage to someone’s definition of a secure border could be a real problem,” Eliseo Medina, the SEIU’s secretary-treasurer, said on a conference call with reporters in early March. “This could turn into ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder.’”
While the Gang of Eight’s description of the commission says it will make a “recommendation,” Republicans insist that issue hasn’t been settled.
In interviews earlier this month with the Arizona Republic, two GOP members of the Gang of Eight, Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both said that the body’s role in making the border security determination that could trigger the path to citizenship remained up in the air.
“We’re still trying to figure that part out, and what role [the commission] plays,” Flake said.
Beyond the commission’s power, another particularly thorny problem facing the Gang of Eight involves the requirements or guidelines that would be put before the commission for it to determine how border security is defined. What does a “secure border” really mean?
Democrats fear the commission could use the elusive and perhaps impossible goal of a hermetically sealed border to delay the launch of the pathway to citizenship.
“You’re never going to certify the border secured,” Fitz told POLITICO. “There’s never going to be a ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’ sign draped across the border fencing.”
Some Republicans, like Arizona GOP Rep. Matt Salmon, would prefer using the GAO or an independent outside group to make that determination.
But Flake has hinted at a possible compromise by citing the use of “metrics” in making the judgment about whether the border has been secured. That suggests eventual immigration reform legislation could set clearly defined quantifiable and measurable goals for border security, leaving the commission to simply “check the box” as requirements were met — or not.
Example of such “metrics” can be found in the 2007 immigration bill that laid out certain numerical goals that have mostly been attained over the past six years: There are now 18,5000 Border Patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexico border; 10 drones patrol the skies; and 300 camera towers have improved surveillance. (The administration has built only 651 miles of border fence out of a requested 670 miles.)
The Gang of Eight’s framework includes a commitment to further increase the number of agents and drones, and a pledge to equip the Border Patrol “with the latest technology, infrastructure, and personnel needed to prevent, detect, and apprehend every unauthorized entrant.”
While Congress and the White House await more details from the Gang of Eight, Republicans and Democrats insist they want to remove politics from the decision about border security, at least as much as possible.
“Take it out of the hands of politicians,” Salmon told POLITICO. “You don’t let the fox guard the henhouse.
is a grassroots coalition of groups and individuals united in our belief that a border wall will not stop illegal immigration or smuggling and will not make the United States any safer. It will do irreparable harm to our borderlands and our country as a whole. We urge our elected representatives to reject the border wall and repeal the Secure Fence Act and the Real ID Act.