Here’s one of the good things about the immigration bill that passed the U.S. Senate. It reminds us of how things used to work in Congress, back in the day when the two parties would get together and make big messy deals that we all complained about.
Which now, of course, we miss. Come back, big messy deals! All is forgiven.
To be fair, the Senate never entirely lost its gift for the BMD. For instance, senators are terrific with the farm bill, a classic merging of interests that mixes money for agricultural subsidies with the food stamp program. They could pass a farm bill every day. And, it goes without saying, the House of Representatives could take lessons from the Senate.
Immigration reform was an invitation to deal-making from the get-go. Its yin and yang are border security, plus giving a path to citizenship to the estimated 11 million people who are currently living here without documentation.
Senators have been working on a plan for ages. (“What is the rush?” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas demanded during the final debate. The listening world said, “hahahaha.”)
As things moved along, the path to citizenship got longer while the border security section got tougher. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of the bipartisan Gang of Eight that brokered the deal, was continually peeling off to tell some TV interviewer that there had to be way, way more on the security front. Rubio was an excellent example of the problems you are going to have when you invite a presidential hopeful to join your gang.
More compromise was in order! So the bill came out of the Judiciary Committee with a 13-year path to citizenship and 3,500 additional border protection officers. Then it went to the full Senate, where the sponsors agreed to add on another 20,000 border agents and expand the wall-like border fence to 700 miles. Price tag: $30 billion.
“It’s a huge, huge buildup,” said Chris Wilson, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “We doubled the border patrol in the 1990s. We doubled it again in the first decade of the century. Now we’re considering doubling it again.”
It is certainly true that the more border patrol agents you assign, the more people you catch trying to cross the border. It is also true that the more agents you assign, the less payoff you get for each additional federal employee. Right now in the area around El Paso, Wilson said, “it’s around 3½ apprehensions per agent per year.”
Sooner or later, we will eliminate illegal crossings completely, thanks to the roughly 6 million agents we will employ to stand holding hands across the length of the border, around the clock.
Illegal immigration across the Mexican border is a problem. However, it’s hardly the worst threat we’ve got out there. Last month, Rolling Stone had a long and terrifying article about how rising sea levels could begin to overwhelm Miami within the next couple of decades. Next time you see Rubio, be sure to ask him about this. If we can afford to pay border agents to catch three people a year, shouldn’t we at least be looking at getting the Miami nuclear reactors onto higher ground?
The immigration reformers wanted a big vote. Not just a majority, or even the normal Senate-majority 60 percent, but a whopping Supersize-Me majority that would send shock and awe through the ranks of the resistant House.
So they tossed in agents, fences and a special deal for the Alaskan seafood packers.
The final vote was 68-32. Not at all bad for a body that couldn’t garner the political willpower to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. True, it throws $30 billion at an inefficient solution to a problem that seems to be dwindling under its own steam. But it’s got that path to citizenship, and it’s no worse than giving $3 billion a year to the nation’s cotton planters.
The bill now goes to the House, where the speaker says he won’t bring it up for a vote except in the exceedingly unlikely event that a majority of the Republicans want him to. House Democrats are hoping they can find the 20-odd Republicans they’d need to get a discharge petition. Many of us in the media are really excited about that possibility, because then we will get to repeatedly explain to you what a discharge petition is.
Also, that would give us a big messy deal on immigration. Which would actually be extremely cool.