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Comprehensive Immigration.... And Enforcement

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- It's not every day that Karl Rove, who has built a career in the political arena, warns about the dangers of letting the legislative process get overtaken by politics.

But that's what happened last week when Rove, the chief White House political adviser, addressed the National Council of La Raza at the group's conference in Los Angeles.

"We need to work together, which will require making tough choices to get a bill that is not perfect, but is meaningful, and fair and comprehensive,'' Rove told the group.

"Working together we can do it or we can run the risk of a failure, a bill that splits apart and takes a political rather than a practical direction."

Rove is right. Comprehensive immigration reform is the way to go. Can you imagine splintering the various components -- enforcement, guest workers, employer sanctions, etc. -- and dealing with them separately? If we did that, by the time we resolved one of the great challenges of the 21st century, we would be deep into the 22nd century.

Rove assured the group that President Bush would work with both Republicans and Democrats in coming weeks to push through comprehensive reform legislation.

That's encouraging. The White House needs to go mano a mano with House Republicans who can't legislate and chew gum at the same time. Those legislators say that Congress should focus on "enforcement first" and put off any talk of guest workers or legalizing the undocumented until the border is secure.

Good luck with that, folks. Putting off immigration reform until we "secure the border" is like saying we're going to put off welfare reform until we end poverty, or that we shouldn't curb racial preferences until we end inequality. Here's the thing: We're never going to end poverty or inequality, just as we'll never totally secure the border. If we wait for that goal to be achieved before going on to the next phase, we'll be waiting forever.

It doesn't help that with their knee-jerk "enforcement only" approach, House Republicans took a powder on the tough issue -- namely, what to do with 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants who are already in the United States. In fact, these wannabe hard-liners don't even have the faintest clue about how to prevent additional illegal immigrants from entering the country. They might understand the issue better had they paid more attention to the experts during their recent round of photo-ops, er, I mean, field hearings, on immigration reform.

Chief Border Patrol Agent Darryl Griffen was one of those invited to address a congressional field hearing in San Diego.

I've spoken with Griffen a few times and I've been impressed with both his candor and command of the subject matter. As the head of the San Diego sector, he can tell you what's wrong with our current level of border enforcement and how to make it right.

But first, you have to pipe down and listen. At the hearing, Griffen couldn't stop members of Congress from interrupting him, or talking over him, or cutting him off or trying to fish out answers they wanted to hear, any more than he could stop them from brushing off those responses that seemed too nuanced or too inconvenient or too complicated to fit on a bumper sticker.

Now House Republicans say they want to hold more public field hearings this month, presumably so they can not listen to more people.

When I spoke to Griffen, I asked him what he needed in order to do his job better. I wanted to know what items he would he put on his wish list.

At the hearings, only one member of Congress bothered to ask him the same question: Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif. Griffen told Becerra that he needed two things: remote video surveillance systems (which detect people crossing the border) and tunnel detection devices.

In speaking with me, Griffen added a third item: more "green shirts" (agents on the ground), perhaps as much as an additional 20 percent to 30 percent increase in his current force.

I'd toss in more reforms: stiffer and more often enforced employer sanctions; more prosecutions of employers in addition to smugglers; an end to the "catch and release" policy for the low-level foot guides that lead illegal immigrants into the country; more intelligence gathering equipment and capability; and more roads and infrastructure along some of the more desolate parts of the border to make it easier to patrol and pursue.

We need comprehensive immigration reform all right, but we also need something you don't hear much about -- comprehensive enforcement.

The folks on the line need a lot of different tools to better protect the country. And Congress should stop showboating and deliver them.

(c) 2006, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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 Ruben Navarrette
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