AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Public Policy Foundation organized a panel discussion at the Texas Capitol to address the crisis along the Texas border. The panel was the second of a two-part series, with a similar event last week focusing on accurately identifying the problems along the border, and this week’s panel discussing potential solutions. Last week’s panel included Breitbart Texas Managing Director Brandon Darby as one of the speakers.
Thursday’s event, titled “Securing the Border: A Symposium on Solutions,” brought back Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples as moderator and featured speakers included Laura Collins, director of immigration policy at the American Action Forum, Shikha Dalmia, senior policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, and Mike Gonzalez, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Institute for International Studies.
Before the panel began, Breitbart Texas interviewed Staples, asking “In Texas, we don’t just talk about problems, we focus on solutions, and we have nationally recognized experts that, after laying the ground work [with last week’s panel] about what’s really going on, on the Texas Mexico border, we’ll be talking about what solutions are on the table, which ones are workable, and how to put the votes together.”
“The real intractable issue in Washington is you have the liberal elements that want to provide citizenship for people that violate our nation’s entry laws,” he added. “The clear reality is that people are not coming for citizenship, they’re coming looking for a job. Our guest worker program is antiquated, it’s broken…if you’re a conservative, if you want efficient government, if you want to secure that border, you can effectively secure that border by having a modernized guest worker program that is market based, not based on artificial quotas that were established in the 1960s…these are the simple that we’ve got to start talking about.”
When asked about the efforts by Texas grassroots activists to propose solutions to the border crisis, Staples said that he “appreciated everyone coming forward and thinking about new ways and new ideas. I think the federal government has made it clear — and I don’t mind challenging the federal government — that [Texas] cannot enforce federal immigration laws…[but] we’ve got to do everything we can in Texas.” Staples was not yet convinced a special session of the legislature was necessary and advocated seeing what effect the new deployment of Texas National Guard troops would have before making a move like that.
As the panel began, Collins spoke first, discussing immigration issues from an economic perspective. “Border security is just one component that works with the economics,” said Collins, and she advocated approaching immigration “from a market-based perspective.” By implementing an efficient, workable legal immigration system — that includes a workable guest worker program — you can alleviate some pressure on the border, she said.
Collins also argued that immigration as a whole benefits a country economically by raising the GDP, reducing deficits, and other positive effects. On the flip side, if it were theoretically possible to deport all the illegal workers immediately, many of those people are working and spending money in our economy, and, according to Collins, removing them would cause our economy to contract.
The key, Collins emphasized again, is an “immigration system that’s good for all of us” — a legal immigration system, including employment verification. “If you’re going to limit immigration in any way, you need a workable employment verification system,” she said. “We need to find a way to make that work, so that businesses have confidence in who they’re hiring.”
Dalmia began her remarks pointing out how the federal government had lost credibility on the immigration issue. “We all know that our immigration system is completely broken,” she said, also noting that immigration reform was “dead in the water” for at least the near future.
A major part of the problem, according to Dalmia, happened when the United States began implementing an immigration system that was heavily centrally controlled, and created a significant gap in the demand for foreign workers and the quota that Washington allows to enter legally. Before, under a more open system, workers would naturally gravitate to where the jobs were, guided by traditional supply and demand principles.
The current U.S. worker visa system classifies all workers into only two categories, “skilled” and “unskilled.” Dalmia called these categories “weird,” “snobbish,” and “unhelpful,” mentioning logical inconsistencies like classifying a welder as unskilled but masseuse as skilled. Exacerbating the problem is the increasingly complicated process to obtain a visa for an “unskilled” worker, with Dalmia going so far as to describe it as the “bureaucratic equivalent of waterboarding.”
The fact that demand for worker visas vastly outstrips the supply is well known, and Dalmia discussed some figures showing exactly how severe the mismatch was between the labor needs of local economies and foreign workers willing to travel, and what the federal government allowed.
The most recent figures showed that there were only 85,000 skilled worker visas available and the government received over 125,000 applications very quickly and then announced that they were not even going to look at any more applications.
The figures are even more unbalanced for unskilled workers. The government received 450,000 applications for H-2A visas, the designation for agricultural workers, and only 75,000 were available. Three hundred thousand workers applied for H-2B visas, the non-agricultural designation, with only 66,000 available.
The federal system “breeds lawlessness,” said Dalmia, as many workers view the odds as so unfavorable — not too mention how complicated and expensive compliance is — that they do not even bother trying to follow the law.
Dalmia then suggested a solution that has not received as much attention in our federally-dominated immigration system: turning more power over to the states. As an example, Dalmia discussed the Canadian system, which is much more decentralized than the American system. In Canada, their federal government assigns visa applicants points based on their educational levels, skills and experience, language ability, and demand for their specific profession, and conducts criminal, health, and background checks. The provinces then play a major role in processing applications and deciding who is granted a visa and how many are granted.
The Canadian system is significantly quicker at processing visa applicants than the American system, with substantial cost savings as well. Dalmia described other advantages that the United States would see if we adopted a more similar system, such as being able to more efficiently direct the flow of immigrants to where they are most needed, instead of where they end up, as well as being consistent with conservative positions like creating a more limited role for the federal government and allowing the states to be laboratories of democracy. For example, Arizona’s government has pushed for stricter enforcement of immigration laws, while Utah has asked for a waiver to allow more guest worker visas for their state. President Obama sharply criticized Arizona but his administration has not acted to grant Utah’s request. A more decentralized system would let the states balance immigration by trading quota numbers and the illegal immigration issue would largely resolve itself through this mutual cooperation. This type of system also flips the tone of the immigration debate, treating immigrants who want to work and obey the laws as assets, not liabilities.
Gonzalez, who was born in Cuba, told his family’s story of immigrating to the United States and how much they appreciated the opportunities America had given them, a narrative familiar to anyone who has listened to Texas Senator Ted Cruz or Florida Senator Marco Rubio tell their stories.
Gonzalez took issue with how, throughout the whole contentious immigration debate, liberals “keep pounding the table” saying we’re a nation of immigrants. The problem, according to him, is that liberals do not understand what that should mean: a nation of legal immigrants. Gonzalez talked about how the United States needed to stay a nation of immigrants, to be an escape hatch for people like his family fleeing an oppressive regime in Cuba, but that we needed to be not just a “historical experiment” in freedom, but also the rule of law.
The current immigration system, explained Gonzalez, was set up to divide people and engage in social engineering, not ethically and efficiently process legal immigrants. About fifty years ago, the government tossed out America’s past experience with bringing immigrants into this country and created new artificially applied labels for groups to target for social welfare and affirmative action programs, he said. These categories lumped together people who were in reality very different: creating the label “Hispanic” to cover Mexicans, Cubans, Brazilians, etc., “Asian” to cover Chinese, Filipinos, etc.
The new categories were inserted into the United States Census and the government started engaging in massive data collection on these artificial categories of people. Gonzalez criticized this approach, saying that it sends a discriminatory, divisive message and doesn’t actually help people, instead conditioning them to think of government support and intervention as benevolent. Gonzalez’s challenge to conservatives was to not fear the predicted demographic changes in this country, but instead embrace Hispanics as agents of change and reach out to them to discuss the opportunities to be found in America.
In a question and answer period, Dalmia again emphasized her position that “you cannot have border security without a decent guest worker program” that provides legal options to connect workers and employers.
Gonzalez supported her comment, noting that under the old open border system, workers came to America to work, and then returned home, especially seasonal workers. Modern life and national security issues mean we do not want such a porous system, but one negative side effect to the way we currently enforce our immigration system is that illegal immigrants fear being unable to return, so they hunker down and stay here on a virtually permanent basis.
Collins pointed out another problem with our current immigration system: its high levels of complexity and expense mean that small and mid-size businesses are effectively barred from participating. Only large corporations can afford the attorneys and support staff needed to get applicants through the system.
In response to a question about immigrants taking American jobs, Dalmia commented that the situation was more complex: immigrants do not just take a job in a vacuum, they participate in the economy as consumers and taxpayers, generating wealth and benefitting everyone. Collins added, “you’re not swapping,” one foreign worker for one American worker, a job for a job.
At the conclusion of the program, Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback, the President of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, offered some perspective from local law enforcement. “No sheriff is anti-immigrant,” he said, “but we are all anti-criminal.” Regarding the border crisis, they believed a higher level of engagement from local law enforcement would be helpful. “We stand ready as Texas sheriffs” to help solve this problem, he said, but are currently underutilized. He advocated giving local law enforcement greater authority to have an active role in monitoring the border and detaining illegal immigrants.
After the panel concluded, Breitbart Texas interviewed Sheriff Louderback and discussed his comments. One way local law enforcement can play a greater role is through the federal “287(g) program,” which allows them to enter into a partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Louderback expressed his disappointment that there was not a greater effort to take this kind of action, although it is similar to one of the recommendations of the Texas Border Crisis Action Plan presented on Thursday by Texas grassroots tea party leaders.
“We just think that Texas sheriffs need to be included in every aspect [of the border crisis discussion],” said Louderback. “We think local control is the best control, [and] we don’t think we’re being utilized enough in that regard.”
Funding is, as always, an issue, with Louderback acknowledging the challenges that small rural counties on the front lines of the border crisis face. “Horrible problems in Brooks County,” he said, referring to the high cost of processing the dead bodies of the tragically high number of illegal immigrants who are found dead in the area. “They need [more] funding. There are several things that can be done to alleviate [the situation in Brooks County],” he said, adding that it was important to also “include the Texas Sheriffs in the solution to this matter.”
[Disclosure: The author of this article was previously employed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.]
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter at @rumpfshaker.