If we listen to voices at the border, they’ll tell a complicated story

People near the front lines of what’s happening at the southwest border often have rather complex and layered views about what’s going on there.

A tendency to oversimplify these views helps to inform a lopsided policy response to the border — one that has piled on more and more security measures without addressing the obvious other dimensions of the problem.

People living near the border feel unsafe, are fed up, and demand more security. This account has a lot of truth to it, but it is a huge oversimplification. In general, majority views on the border and immigration have for a long time been complex and, at first blush, perhaps self-contradictory: demanding more security, more pragmatism, and more compassion.

Some ranchers, like the quasi-vigilante Roger Barnett, have aggressively advocated for greater security. Others have more nuanced views. (See some supremely illustrated examples in Edward Caputo’s 2007 Virginia Quarterly Review article). Lavoyger Durham appears to be one of the latter group. Durham is a South Texas rancher. He’s at the center of this powerful article by Ananda Rose discussing the rise in migrant deaths in South Texas.

Rose rightly calls Durham a good Samaritan. He’s put up South Texas’s first water station, and often offers urgently needed assistance to migrants who are too weak to travel onward. Some of the help he offers is technically illegal. Durham, who like many border ranchers is bilingual, at some point started to ask the migrants he encounters who are too weak to go on if he can interview them as they wait for the Border Patrol. He says he wants to understand them and their journey. Most say no, but some agree. Durham’s conversations with them, even in their weakened states, are humanizing. The migrants can tell their stories, such as in the video above. His YouTube channel is worth checking out.

It’s interesting, then, to watch Durham talk in this video, produced by the Texas Department of Agriculture, about the urgent security needs at the border and the overall lack of safety.

Concern about security and concern about migrants coexist.

There are three things to observe. First, what people want out of the government defies simplification into a ‘greater security/less security’ trope. Second, we should actually try to understand how all these views fit together according to people’s worldviews, rather than seeing them as contradictory.

Thing third thing to observe poses a question that’s difficult to answer: Why has our political response obsessed so much over the security dimension of the border and immigration, when there is clearly a whole lot else going on? The response does injustice to the complexity of how Americans think about, feel about, and respond to what’s happening at the border. It’s a systemic response, reducible to no clear group of policymakers, and it has not satisfied anybody.

Today’s immigration panic: The ‘illegal immigrant’ Arizona DPS officer

News 4 in Tucson has this story of a 13-year Department of Public Safety officer who doesn’t seem to have legal status in the United States. This person has even worked as a public information officer for the department.*

The coverage is predictably breathless. “An illegal immigrant on the job, with a badge and gun!” The reporter basically wants to know: How could this happen? A legitimate question, considering this is Arizona and all. But News 4 buries the lede: In the hiring process, DPS says the woman likely presented false documents which DPS believed. Apparently, though, the woman had been under the impression that she was an American citizen. It’s a relatively common story.

The better question for News 4 to ask would be: Did society collapse or did anybody die because of this ‘illegal’ with a badge and a gun? Did she aid the Reconquista or shred our laws by conducting media ride-alongs in a squad car as a PIO? As far as it seems, there are no misconduct complaints against her. ICE came upon the case because her brother (in the U.S. without status) applied for a visa to stay, not because of any incident involving her.

Maybe News 4 might want to note the extent to which the sky didn’t fall. The line of thought (hardly limited to them) seems to be that because she didn’t have illegal status, she was some kind of disgrace to the police. Could it be instead that, if apparently people who do a decent job and (allegedly) believe they are citizens are booted out of those jobs in an investigative/media panic, it’s our laws that are a disgrace?

Maybe it’s too much to contemplate for the local news audience. Easier to panic about ‘illegals’ infiltrating the police than to ask if this whole incident just reveals the ridiculousness of our immigration policy situation.

An ‘illegal immigrant’ with a badge and a gun and nobody gets hurt? Imagine!

*Major caveat: I am assuming here that News 4’s reporting is accurate.

Update: DPS’ Bart Graves says that the officer in question had an ‘exemplary record on the job.’

Prosecutorial discretion is the art of the possible

The quotable Prussian. (Public Domain)

The quotable Prussian. (Public Domain)

I thought of a shorter way of expressing my post from yesterday. It starts with the well-worn Bismarck adage that politics is “the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”

A broad legalization is what people (including a majority of Americans in polls) have been wanting Congress to do about the unauthorized population for many years. Congress has not acted. So the President is left to do what he can, to achieve what is possible in this area.

What is “possible” is what the President can succeed politically at doing without Congress.

He has judged that he could not succeed politically at just stopping deportations. Understandably, he says this would extremely overstep his authority in the Constitution, and could set a bad precedent. Unsaid is that this would also cause a major spat with Republicans in Congress (who could say it’s impeachable).

However, he can succeed politically at deferring the deportation of groups of unauthorized people who politicians find it difficult to inveigh against. People brought here as children, and now family of members of the military and veterans, for instance.

In our ossified system, action is limited to “special” executive discretion at the limits of where Congress refuses to legislate. People have been worried that gridlock may lead to more unilateral executive action, but in reality the practice seems less than grand. Politics is a form of opportunism — and the only opportunity that exists is to nibble at the edges of problems Congress pointedly ignores. Whether the executive correctly surveys the full scope of its opportunities is another matter.

Politics and the piece-by-piece semi-legalization of an Arizona family

Meet the Zermeños. They’re an Arizona family, but only one of them is a US citizen. The citizen Zermenño, Gabriel, is in the military. His father José and his sisters all lack legal status.

It seems cruel and inhumane that someone who is serving in the military for the United States might face the deportation of a loved one. It also presents a problem to the mission of the military if its personnel are distracted from their duties overseas because they have to help defend relatives against deportation. So President Obama is making official an informal policy laid out in 2010 by DHS, where unauthorized relatives of military personnel can apply for “parole in place,” meaning they can apply for legal status in the United States without having to return to their home countries for ten years beforehand like normal.

José Zermeño is planning to apply for this program. Gabriel’s sisters have applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Read from the other direction, it may seem cruel that US citizen Gabriel’s sisters are allowed to stay, but their father, who raised them on his own in America, is not. That would suggest the logic of extending the logic of DACA to parents of US citizens, even without a special program for the people connected to the military. So, once you begin acknowledging that it’s worth it to grant leave to some people despite their immigration status, you realize that legitimate grounds apply to a whole range of people. This is one of the compelling logics for a broad legalization, of course.

All this gets to an infuriating and contradictory aspect of the immigration argument. On one hand, there is a rather clear general principle supporting a broad legalization. On the other hand, without Congressional action, that principle can only find expression in well-defined areas that would seem very difficult to contest politically. It’s a clear moral and policy judgment, pressed through a distorting political filter.

Of course, President Obama is taking this action amid increasingly dim prospects for immigration reform any time soon. The extent of this authority to carve out these areas of non-enforcement is disputed. This heckler says the president can stop all deportations. The president replies he cannot ignore whole sections of law (but can use discretion to decline to do some enforcement). Everyone agrees that the temporary nature of deferred action is not as good as the permanent nature of a final Congressional legalization. The push to move forward without Congressional approval relies on the perception that there is some middle ground for maneuver.

In practice, the “middle ground”  comprises the areas where there is perceived political license that permits deferred action — areas that encompass people whom it is very difficult to argue against, such people who were brought to the US as children, or who have raised people who have risked their life for the United States. These are subjective political judgments, made when Americans back a path to citizenship for the bulk of the unauthorized population by large majorities. So why not a broader program? The perception is that such a policy would need to go through Congress. Why wouldn’t the more limited one need to? Why are certain people harmed by the sad dysfunction of Congress more than others? There’s a consistent and universal principle at work here — that there should be a general legalization — but as long as Congress remains still on the issue, where that principle is exercised basically comes down to a necessarily rough reading of the political landscape. These are subjective judgments to make, and in making them it is wise not to arguably make the path to reform more difficult accidentally by deferring action for a population that anyone feels they can argue strongly against. How some people perceive other people to judge still other “groups” of people becomes a motivating criterion. (Perceive being the important word.)

So, a more normal life in America must proceed piece-by-piece for a family like the Zermeños. Still, millions will benefit from no program like this, despite the fact that the humanitarian and public-benefit criteria of deferred action might also very plausibly apply to them. The basic cause for such a mess is Congress not acting when everybody knows what Congress has to do: it is difficult to get even the most devoted anti-immigration activists to talk seriously about deportations en masse. Every time we defer immigration enforcement, it shows the logic for why further enforcement should be deferred. That is, until Congress decides to enact the only clear policy solution to this — which always has been the only clear policy solution, and will continue to be the only clear policy solution.

Immigration reform, the undead dream

Notwithstanding the recent lobbying push and the modicum of Republicans who emerged to support the Senate-passed immigration reform bill, now comes some real talk (from Greg Sargent) that the window for action of immigration reform is fast closing:

“We have very few days available on the floor in the House, so I don’t think we’re going to be able to do it this year,” GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida told me by phone today.

Diaz-Balart has been deeply involved in bipartisan negotiations over immigration for years now, and is thought to be in touch with House GOP leaders on the issue, so folks involved in the immigration debate pay close attention to what he says.

Worse, Diaz-Balart said that if something were not done early next year — by February or March, before GOP primaries heat up – reform is dead for the foreseeable future.

“I’m hopeful that we can get to it early next year,” he said. “But I am keenly aware that next year, you start running into the election cycle. If we cannot get it done by early next year, then it’s clearly dead. It flatlines.”

Diaz-Balart is one of the few Republicans who consistently is active in support of immigration reform. So, if not even he is trying to keep up the facade that everything is still rolling along, then that’s a bad sign for the chances of any legislation.

Carbonite-encased Han Solo, who, like immigration reform, is not dead but at the same time isn't going anywhere.

Carbonite-encased Han Solo, who, like immigration reform, is not dead but at the same time isn’t going anywhere.

A couple of months ago, I was doing some interviews for another project and was talking to someone about how to keep pressure for diversity efforts strong within an organization. This person made it very clear that you need to keep your effort on people’s “value stream,” and that if you’re not talking about something that maps on to anything that the people in charge care about, “you’re DOA.”

This is a useful way to think about the fundamental problem in getting immigration reform passed through Congress. Immigration reform was “alive” as long as it was in Republicans’ value stream. The reason it might have been there emerged from a sense of enlightened self-interest: After 2012, it might have helped them with the suddenly obvious problems that they were losing badly in growing demographic groups such as Hispanics. (Despite the fact that, thanks to gerrymandering, few officeholders themselves were vulnerable.) Moving forward from the political moment of the 2012 election, what’s the situation? Republicans probably now perceive as their problem that their overall brand is terrible, or that they were forced to concede to the president in their big political move of the year, or that any alleged Republican moderate is potentially vulnerable to a right-wing challenge.

Where does immigration reform fit into these things? It probably doesn’t. It’s not on Republicans’ value stream, and it’s not clear how it will be put back there as the primary dates approach. Sure, Chris Christie won his sweeping victory on Tuesday (the Republicans’ best result) with a lot of support from New Jersey Hispanics, but that hasn’t seemed to get a whole lot of attention.

Republicans who now seem only fleetingly engaged due to self-interest, however, form only one part of the winning caucus. The other part is people with a more basic concern for the more basic policy planks of immigration reform (which includes some Republicans).

These people will continue to support the comprehensive architecture, since there’s  no obvious alternative to it. So, in that sense, immigration reform will never exactly die. It will just wait for the right political moment to again be thawed (or, reheated).

My opinion of Jeh Johnson

Jeh Johnson.

Jeh Johnson.

This guy is Jeh Johnson. If President Obama — who I very much like and generally think is right and has good judgment about things — get his way, then Jeh Johnson will be the secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security.

Boy. That would make Jeh Johnson a really important person when it comes to immigration policy, wouldn’t it?

I have never met or worked for Jeh Johnson.

However, according to Wikipedia, Jeh Johnson is a lawyer who seems to have really good credentials that would lead us to believe confidently he is quite intelligent. He seems like a really successful guy who has worked for other people I like. Most recently, he was the general counsel for the US Department of Defense, where he probably dealt with a lot of important issues regarding people who work for the government and have guns (just like some of the people at DHS).

After I googled him, I realized that I had in fact heard of Jeh Johnson before, twice or three times. I did not remember this before I googled him.

Which, of course, says more about me and my concerns than about Jeh Johnson. As Wikipedia also points out, his Department of Defense general counsel gig is only the latest in a series of important jobs he has had.

If President Obama gets to give Jeh Johnson the job he wants Jeh Johnson to have, then Jeh Johnson will be the replacement for the person I used to write speeches for, who used to be in that job. Yesterday, I wanted to have a well-formed opinion about Jeh Johnson. I tweeted something about him that seemed like I was talking about Jeh Johnson, when it really was actually about the other people who have done the job he might get to do:

This has been my opinion about Jeh Johnson.

What does the fiscal fight mean for immigration reform?

Crucial question: After the fiscal fight, is this guy's job any safer? (Creative Commons/davidsilver)

Crucial question: After the fiscal fight, is this guy’s job any safer? (Creative Commons/davidsilver)

Further fiscal crisis has now been postponed long enough for people to pay attention to other issues in front of Congress. So, how has this whole episode has affected the possibilities for immigration reform?

I find it difficult to get into the internal psychology of the Republican Party, and predicting things is a dangerous game anyway. But here is the framework I think we should use to think about it:

The central problem with getting immigration reform passed is the same as before. There are enough votes in the House to pass the bill the Senate passed already in June, but it would have to move with near-unanimous support from Democrats and the votes of only a modest number of Republicans. So, the House leadership is loath to move it to the floor against the wishes of most of their caucus. At the same time, it’s basically impossible to imagine a bill that a majority of Republicans would vote for that would also attract the support of the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Obama.

The problem remains the same. But has the near-total Republican loss in the most recent episode the fiscal fight — driven by Republican hard-liners — made the resolution of this impasse any more likely?

Three aspects of this question that seem important to me:

Has bending the Hastert Rule on the fiscal fight made it more malleable in the future, or has the bruising experience made far-right Republicans unwilling to allow it to be bent again? The success of immigration reform still depends on the willingness of (establishment) Republican leaders in the House to move a bill to the floor despite the near-certainty that a majority of their caucus will vote against it. Are they more likely to do this on immigration now than they were in the summer? The crisis-ending deal still got “no” votes from most House Republicans, but after weeks of bleeding, even the dissenters eventually assented to their leadership taking it to the floor anyway. So, Republican leaders ended the standoff while minimizing their risks of falling victim to a coup; they “went against” most of their caucus, but not really. Could the same thing happen with immigration, especially without the context of a crisis-producing deadline? Now that the far-right faction of the party has conceded defeat until next year on fiscal matters, are they more, less, or roughly equally likely to put up a strong fight on immigration reform, with all the attendant roadblocks?

Where (and who) are the “reasonable” Republicans? Will “reasonable” Republicans stand up and wrest control of their party (especially in the House) from the “unreasonable” Republicans? Many hope that the political blows Republicans have suffered in the past few weeks will bring forth the day of reckoning for a party that has become unsustainably radical and reactionary. Some have noted with frustration in the past few weeks that the “Tea Party” faction is actually quite small. But it seems to me that when we are talking about “reasonable” Republicans who don’t really want to shut down the government or cause needless default, we are talking about a different group than the moderate Republicans who would actually vote for the Senate immigration bill or, more broadly, support immigration reform at all. There are plenty of “reasonable” Republicans who are still probably far too conservative to get behind immigration reform (though some may vote no for self-protection reasons yet still hope it passes). In any case, convincing a party to offer a more moderate face to voters is often a years-long process, and answering this question requires looking into a crystal ball to see when bog-standard conservative Republicans will cease to fear being challenged in primaries from their right.

How do Republicans see their problem? Establishment Republicans have for a while spoken about their party’s poor approval ratings and branding problems. Other Republicans disagree with the establishment’s perspective on the problem, arguing that they wouldn’t have problems if they were “really” conservative. Regardless, the post-2012 conception of this problem was that Republicans were attracting a dwindling number of white voters, so they needed to reach out to growing demographic groups. Rehabilitating their image on immigration by compromising on a reform bill is supposed to be a first step in doing so. This analysis has provided almost all of the Republicans’ political rationale for cooperating with Democrats on advancing this group of policy goals. But now, post-2013-fiscal-showdown, what is the Republicans’ self-perception of their problem? Does their stance on immigration still play such a large part, or is their problem much broader and fundamentally internal? The first step to getting sufficient Republican support on immigration reform is to capture the focus of the fraction of the Republican Party that wants to rebrand itself, and train that focus on immigration reform as a policy goal. Where is that group focusing its attention now?