Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

U.S. national interest demands a uniform approach to immigration and foreign policy

[i] Should states and local governments have the right to enforce their own immigration laws when their voters decide the federal laws and practices are insufficient? [b]No[/b][/i]

When the Arizona legislature decided to crack down on illegal immigration, it forced its state and local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration law—or at least Arizona’s version. But what if Arizona’s new law drives more illegal immigration to the three remaining border states? How would those states react?

Imagine that legislators in California pass a law that denies business licenses to companies suspected of hiring undocumented immigrants. What if Texas sets up its own immigration inspections on state highways? And what would happen if New Mexico passes a law that closes the international ports of entry along the New Mexico–Mexico border?

Sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? But it’s easy to see how one state’s actions related to a federal issue—immigration—could turn into the equivalent of an arms race among neighboring states.

The fact is, immigration and control of our international borders are federal issues for a reason. It is in America’s national interest to have a uniform approach to an issue that affects foreign policy and national security.

That doesn’t mean states should ignore the effects of illegal immigration or violence at the border. As governor, I have consistently taken state action to deal with the public safety of New Mexicans living near the border.

Ironically, while the Arizona bill may have been prompted by drug-related border violence, this law does nothing to solve the problem. In fact, the law may actually hurt law enforcement’s ability to go after drug cartels because local police officers will be doing the work of the U.S. Border Patrol rather than the traditional crime fighting they are trained to do.

In 2005, I declared a state border emergency as a result of violence, damage to property and livestock and increased drug smuggling near the New Mexico border town of Columbus. That emergency declaration freed up state money to pay for local law enforcement and a National Guard presence at the border to supplement the Border Patrol, which has primary responsibility for enforcement of federal immigration laws.

I also worked directly with my counterpart in the Mexican state of Chihuahua to address the border violence. Mexican authorities stepped up law enforcement in the area and agreed to bulldoze abandoned buildings across the border from Columbus that were used as staging areas to smuggle drugs and people.

We also worked with the governors of all Mexican border states through the Border Governors’ Conference to address not just immigration and border violence but also education, health care and economic development in the region. We worked collectively as a group to get the attention of our respective federal governments, which is a much more productive way to address the need for immigration reform than enacting a hodge-podge of state laws—on either side of the border—that will only serve to exacerbate the problem.

Unfortunately, our federal government has not acted on our calls for comprehensive immigration reform, despite the public outcry. I am the first to acknowledge that this is a politically charged issue with no easy solutions. At the same time, I strongly disagree with Arizona’s attempt to sidestep federal law and enforce immigration policy on its own.

We have to make immigration reform a national priority. We have to deal realistically with those undocumented workers who are already here. The reality is that we simply cannot deport everyone. Think about the costs that would entail: billions and billions of dollars spent on constant raids and round-ups that will only drive people further into the shadows. And by doing so, we will make them fearful of reporting crime. Immigrants will flee traffic accidents, no longer report domestic violence, and never report illegal operations by drug cartels.

My top priority when it comes to border security is the safety of New Mexico residents. I applaud President Felipe Calderón for his bold campaign against Mexican drug cartels. Unfortunately, the drug cartels are now waging their wars in and around border communities. I can’t ignore the potential for that violence to spill over the border and into New Mexico. That is why I have funded additional law enforcement in those communities and recently sent National Guardsmen to once again support Border Patrol agents in the area.

We must work with Mexico to address the root of the immigration problem. People are desperate to cross our borders because they are starved for hope. I believe that with strong national leadership we can get bipartisan support for a plan that does the following:

  1. Secure the border by hiring and training enough Border Patrol agents to cover the entire border.
  2. Establish a realistic path to legalization for those who are already here. This is not amnesty, but an effort that draws out those already here by offering legal status in exchange for good behavior, learning English, payment of back taxes, and fines for illegal entry.
  3. Crack down on immigration fraud and undocumented workers.
  4. Work in partnership with the Mexican government and other countries to develop border infrastructure and revitalize communities on both sides of the border to create much-needed jobs.

I understand the frustration that motivated Arizona’s legislature to enact this new law. But this law is counter-productive and will further divide people. As the nation’s only Hispanic governor, I am especially concerned about the likelihood for racial profiling in Arizona.

Nevertheless, I do not agree with those who advocate boycotts of Arizona as a result of this law. Like the law itself, boycotts are counter-productive and punish the people of Arizona.

Immigration is an issue that should remind us of what is great about America. But too often, it has brought out the worst in us, and the result has been a failure to reform the system. I know we can do better.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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