The Failure of Ben Nelson's "Border Security First"by Kyle Michaelis
That's why it was so disappointing when, right after the election, the Omaha World-Herald reported:
Sen. Chuck Hagel predicted Wednesday that the new Congress will pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill in the next session.
The Nebraska Republican had strongly criticized his fellow GOP lawmakers in September for failing to update immigration law. He said then that it would cost them in the midterm elections....
A[n] extensive bill - influenced by Hagel and favored by Bush - had passed the Senate 62-36, with bipartisan support. But it stalled when a handful of House Republicans blocked negotiations with the Senate.
A spokesman for Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who voted against the Senate immigration legislation that passed in May, said Nelson still opposes it. Jim Fagin said a change in leadership won't necessarily mean it will fare any better.
"No matter who's in the majority, Sen. Nelson's position is not changed," Fagin said. "He continues to believe, as he always has, that we need to secure the border first and enforce workplace laws before we take any other measures."
Key elements of the bill backed by Hagel and Bush included more Border Patrol agents and customs and immigration enforcement officers; increased border fencing and electronic surveillance; sanctions on employers; and a tiered system under which illegal immigrants could become legal....
Nelson and other opponents call that an amnesty that the American people won't support.
"A pathway to citizenship, amnesty, whatever you want to call it, is too controversial" to pass, Fagin said.
But Hagel called it a realistic approach to dealing with the "12 million illegal aliens" already in the United States.
I have long advocated comprehensive immigration reform, but this summer the New Nebraska Network acknowledged the logic and foresight behind Nelson's call to secure our nation's borders before seeking resolution of the larger problems besetting our immigration policy. Not only did Nelson make a reasonable argument that concerns about national security in the age of terrorism justified divorcing border control from our larger immigration policy, but his position also made sense as something of a compromise between radically different legislation passed by the House and the Senate that Nelson proved correct in predicting would not be reconciled.
Therefore, because of the supposed urgency of our national security concerns and the demands of the American public for at least some sort of action on immigration, Nelson's "border security first" was an entirely honorable campaign theme in 2006 that also made for a useful contrast between Nelson's style of leadership and the prevailing attitudes in the do-nothing Republican Congress. It's time now, however, for Nelson to recognize that the campaign is over and that it's a new day in Washington D.C.
The time has come for comprehensive immigration reform. The leadership is in place and the votes are there to make it a reality. Sure, it will take some work - some finesse - but the American people expect no less. They want action and a Congress that does not deliver will suffer the same fate as its predecessors.
Nelson breaks no promise by adjusting his position to actually reflect the new Congress in which he serves and the new, much-needed reforms that he can still have a hand in developing. In fact, it is a far greater betrayal of everything voters expect Nelson to stand for if he refuses to change his mindset, allowing himself to devolve from an agent of compromise in 2006 to an enemy of progress in 2007.
Nelson and Fagin are correct that amnesty will be controversial, but they are dead wrong if they honestly believe it won't happen anyway. The American public will not and should not celebrate amnesty because it represents the breakdown and failure of the last 20 years of our immigration policy, but the majority understand and accept that some such program is inevitable. All other possibilities are too costly, too uncertain, or too lacking in compassion, actually contributing to the chaos in our current system rather than relieving it.
Like it or not, amnesty is the common sense solution. With comprehensive reform and a firm commitment by the U.S. government that - by securing the border and vigorously enforcing the law - it should never be necessary again - amnesty offers, as Hagel stated, the "realistic approach." At long last, it will establish some sort of order from which progress might finally be made, with precedent and without offending our principles and legacy as a nation of immigrants.
Leaders should be expected to be consistent in their messages and positions. But, we've seen what happens when that gives way to rigidity and inflexibility (i.e. "stay the course"). The playing field has changed, and it's time Nelson wakes to that fact. Neither Democrat or Republican can any longer justify this nation's inaction on immigration. Ben Nelson was elected for just this sort of issue - to work in a bipartisan fashion and to get things done.
"Border security first" was never the answer, but it might, at one point, have been a first step towards a solution. That step is no longer needed. Comprehensive immigration reform can, should, and must be accomplished by the next Congress. As our representative, it would be sad, indeed, if Ben Nelson chooses adherence to an obsolete campaign theme over being our voice in its crafting and doing what's best for this country.