Four years ago, Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake emerged as a moderate Republican leader whose support for comprehensive immigration reform raised hopes that a long-awaited fix was finally possible. Last month, however, just weeks after announcing his candidacy to replace retiring Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Flake withdrew his support. He said concern about insecurity along the border and Mexico's bloody drug wars were behind his political change of heart.
Last year, another moderate Arizona Republican, Sen. John McCain, ended his decade-long backing for a broad overhaul of the immigration system by signing on to an enforcement-only plan. McCain, too, had a tough election ahead.
Neither flip-flop should come as a surprise. Both men backed reform before the economic downturn — when unemployment was low and talk of illegal workers' stealing jobs from Americans was scarce — and before the 2010 election ushered in a conservative resurgence. But while a tougher stance may secure votes, it doesn't serve the American people.
Lawmakers need to be honest about problems and solutions. Federal funding for immigration enforcement, including securing the border, is at an all-time high. Spending rose from $8.5 billion in 2005 to nearly $16.2 billion this year. The number of Border Patrol agents has increased from 12,348 in 2006 to more than 21,000 in 2011. The Obama administration has quadrupled the number of employer audits, fining businesses $6.9 million in 2010 for hiring illegal immigrants, up from a mere $675,000 in 2008. And nearly 400,000 immigrants were deported last year.
The massive allocation of funds and troops, along with high U.S. joblessness, which makes border crossing less appealing, has had a significant impact. Border Patrol arrests dropped from 1.13 million in 2004 to just over 447,700 in 2010, an indication that fewer migrants are trying to cross illegally. Now Republican lawmakers are calling for more funding for new fencing, more sensors, more agents and even drones, in what they say is an effort to deter every single illegal crossing. At this point, however, massive new spending on border security would yield diminishing returns.
The fact is, the immigration system is broken, and we can neither deport our way out of the problem nor vacuum-seal the borders with Mexico and Canada. Comprehensive reform that addresses not just the border but also the workplace and the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in this country remains the best hope for success. Until Republicans like Flake and McCain go back to thinking about real solutions, and put reform back on the legislative agenda, the problems will continue.