Enforcement-First Immigration Politics

Since its creation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Department of Homeland Security has assiduously responded to the clamor of anti-immigrant forces demanding that the federal government take more seriously its responsibility to enforce immigration policy.

By the beginning of President Bush’s second term, the rising demands for strict and nationwide enforcement of immigration laws coalesced around a new political framing of tougher border control and immigration enforcement. The new "enforcement-first" agenda was also a direct response by conservatives and restrictionists to the congressional proposals for comprehensive immigration reform.

Conservatives increasingly argued that there could be no comprehensive immigration reform that included legalization without first securing the borders and enforcing immigration law in the country’s interior.

One of the first and clearest expressions of the "enforcement-first" agenda that the Bush administration enthusiastically adopted came in a Jan. 19, 2006 letter to President Bush from prominent conservatives, including the Republican leaders of the Senate and House. The public letter, titled "First Things First on Immigration," asserted that "border and interior enforcement must be funded, operational, implemented, and proven successful—and only then can we debate the status of current illegal immigrants, or the need for new guest worker programs."

Pointing to the strengthening anti-immigrant voices in Congress, the letter noted that "the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, Senator Rick Santorum said, ‘We need a border-security bill first’" and that "Senator Vitter, Senator Santorum, the majority of Senate Republicans, and the majority of House Republicans are right in their position that we need proven enforcement before we do anything else."

Among those signing this enforcement-first letter were such national figures as William Bennett, Robert Bork, William F. Buckley, Newt Gingrich, David Horowitz, David Keene, Rich Lowry, David Frum, Heather MacDonald, Michael Ledeen, Mark Krikorian, Daniel Pipes, Phyllis Schlafly, and Thomas Sowell.

The letter, which was organized by the conservative Hudson Institute, signaled the rising Republican political consensus around the enforcement-first position, bringing together traditional conservatives, immigration restrictionists, social conservatives, neoconservatives, and leading Republican politicians.

The inclusion of neoconservatives in the burgeoning anti-immigrant coalition was most surprising. Empowered by the Bush administration, especially in foreign affairs, the neoconservative political klatch had traditionally been a reliably pro-immigrant voice before Sept. 11. As a group, dominated by Jewish conservatives with recent immigrant roots, neoconservatives had long resisted the conservative trend toward restrictionism. But with the new national security forces on immigration and the rising conservative backlash against immigrants, neoconservatives increasingly joined the anti-immigrant chorus.

Over the past few years support for the "enforcement first" agenda has spread throughout the Republican Party. Sen. John McCain, formerly a strong supporter of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), switched to a "border enforcement first" position at the start of his presidential campaign in 2007. In early 2008 Republican senators, led by its most anti-immigrant members, formed the Border Security and Enforcement First Caucus as the Senate counterpart to the Immigration Reform Caucus in the House.

In large part, the enforcement-first position has been more a tactical response to CIR than an indicator of any real commitment to immigration reform as a second step. The Senate leaders of the Enforcement First Caucus, including Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL), are, for example, advocates of the "attrition through enforcement" position held by the leading restrictionist organizations. In other words, enforcement was the first and only step. Conservative immigration reform means increased enforcement measures and greater commitments to border security.

But enforcement-first is a more politically palatable policy response than their true "attrition through enforcement" agenda. The political opportunism of "enforcement first" increasingly crossed party lines, as conservative, moderate, and even liberal Democrats began reframing their own stance on immigration as an enforcement-first position.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has embraced enforcement-first immigration reform. As Chertoff did before her, Secretary Janet Napolitano has stated her commitment to a liberal immigration reform that would include legalization and new legal pathways for foreign workers, while noting that DHS has the responsibility to enforce the law, not to change it. Beefed-up immigration enforcement and border control were only part of the solution, as Secretary Chertoff routinely said, pointing out in June 2008 that the immigration problem "is going to persist until Congress grabs the nettle and decides that we’re going to put together a comprehensive immigration reform program that everybody can live with."

In the meantime, DHS, with generous and ever-increasing financial support from Congress, has established an array of programs and operations designed to demonstrate its serious resolve to securing the borders and tracking down immigration violators in the country’s interior. Collectively these post-Sept. 11 initiatives, which accelerated when Michael Chertoff became DHS chief in 2005, are now commonly referred to as the "crackdown" on immigrants.

As the DHS steps up its commitment to border security and immigration enforcement at the start of the Obama administration, there are rising concerns that the enforcement-first policy has become the "attrition through enforcement" policy that its authors really wanted. The administration’s lavish funding for border security and the unleashing of new enforcement programs like Secure Communities represent continuity with the enforcement emphasis of the Bush administration, with as yet little evidence that either the administration or the Democratic congressional leadership have the political will to take the next, promised step.

The enforcement-first argument continues to exert great influence in the immigration debate. It’s an argument to which President Obama recently alluded, when in a May 9 speech, he said, "If the American people don’t feel like you can secure the borders, then it’s hard to strike a deal that would get people out of the shadows and on a pathway to citizenship who are already here … The attitude of the average American is going to be, well, you’re just going to have hundreds of thousands of more coming in each year."

In late March, Napolitano told CNN, which estimated that the administration would be spending $700 million more in border security programs in both DHS and the Justice Department, "It’s all about border safety and security and making sure that spillover violence does not erupt in our own country."

One of the main liberal critiques of the DHS agenda of immigration enforcement during the Bush administration was that it was enforcement without reform. As it played out through increasingly harsh enforcement and border control measures, like workplace raids and the border fence, the enforcement-first strategy to fixing the broken immigration system was increasingly regarded as enforcement-only in practice.

Now, four months into the Obama administration, there is rising concern among reform proponents in light of new administration and congressional commitments for more border security and immigration enforcement programs. These commitments have come without any persuasive demonstration by the administration or Congress that they are firmly committed to immigration reform. Obama’s challenge, admittedly a difficult one, is to lay out a persuasive case for a new immigration policy including legalization measures at a time of economic crisis and little principled resolve among congressional Democrats.