June 8, 2010
I figured I’d ease into the summer with something smooth. Something gentle. A balm for the unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having (and yeah, when a Texan is talking about unseasonably warm weather in June, you know it’s hot).
So sit back, pour yourself some ice-cold lemonade, and read this Watson Wire about a little issue I like to call … immigration.
Now, one really important thing to remember with immigration – maybe the most important thing – is that it’s complicated. This is a simple fact that, amazingly, gets lost quickly and repeatedly in the fiery talk and emotion that swirl around this issue.
The truth is that there are a ton of implications – for our economy, our communities, our concept of who we are as a state and nation, and immigrants themselves – in how governments (and federal officials particularly) resolve, or fail to resolve, the immigration issue.
And frankly, I’m worn out by the us-versus-them press conferences, the we-win-they-lose rhetoric, the endless pontificating, and the simplistic solutions that would create more damage than they would pretend to repair. I’m also tired of the fact that folks who are in a position to really address the issue – both Democrats and Republicans – keep failing to do so because their dogmatic political agendas override good sense.
Like I say – this is complicated.
You may have noticed a couple of weeks ago that I sent an invitation to a special screening of the film 9500 Liberty. That screening was on Wednesday. I wrote recently that we need to listen and create new ways to hear about issues. This panel was a part of that effort.
However, the movie’s showing all week at the Dobie Theater in Austin near the UT campus. It will also show in El Paso and Houston later this month. I encourage you to see it.
9500 Liberty tells the story of how Prince William County, Virginia, tried to draw a hard-line in the immigration battle a few years ago – about the same hard line, in fact, that the state of Arizona drew this spring.
Prince William County passed a resolution, much like the Arizona law, requiring local law enforcement to question and arrest anyone who might be suspected of being in the country illegally and who can’t produce proper documentation.
The film shows the fallout from that decision – not only on the people it targeted and the community it ripped in half, but also on homeowners, local businesses, and the rest of the economy.
One thing that made last Wednesday’s show unique was the panel discussion I moderated after the screening. It featured:
— Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo
— Kathleen Campbell Walker, a partner at Brown McCarroll, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and a widely acknowledged expert on immigration law in Texas
— Eddie Aldrete, senior Vice President for IBC Bank (a very successful and valued Texas-grown business led by folks who’ve been actively engaged on the immigration issue)
— and Eric Byler, the film’s co-director and co-producer
Obviously, this was a very smart, very experienced group of folks, and they offered a fascinating look at what immigration means in Texas.
Eric Byler talked about the power of people to organize and affect change, particularly with on-line tools such as blogs and social media. He was particularly poignant describing how disastrous it is when fear and anger infect the political process, overwhelming, rational and informed debate.
Chief Acevedo highlighted the practical, real strain on law enforcement – and, for that matter, on property taxpayers who pay for police activities – when state or local officers are called on to enforce federal immigration laws. As the chief pointed out, these laws and ordinances essentially divert precious resources away from the prevention, investigation and prosecution of crime, danger and violence. And they further burden the justice system, compromising everyone’s public safety and basic rights. He also illuminated the negative impact on law enforcement that arises when a segment of the population doesn’t trust the local police.
Eddie Aldrete, who knows about economic development in Texas, outlined the economic trouble our state and country will face if we go about immigration reform the wrong way. He was extremely convincing – and sobering – in discussing the fact that we simply aren’t going to have the workers we need to keep companies and industries humming, particularly as baby boomers retire. In fact, we’re already seeing businesses leave the U.S. to find more workers.
And Kathleen Walker’s basic message was a simple reminder that “illegal” is not a noun. She pointed out that the new Arizona statute criminalizes immigration at a state level when, in federal law, it’s a civil issue. This creates a jumble of headaches for the law enforcement officers, business owners and others who have to sort through the legal conflicts.
This great discussion led to the inevitable question: what should we do? What are the right reforms? What is the practical, common-sense, long-term solution at the federal level, and what should state and local governments be doing in the meantime?
Again, it’s complicated. But a few principles are clear.
First, we’ve got to pull fear out of the debate, and we’ve really got to pull race out of it. It’s going to be next to impossible to address immigration as long as the fight is marred with scare tactics and race-baiting rhetoric.
Second, everyone agreed that we need strong leaders at the federal level to take on this issue. Because despite the tough political talk and Arizona’s front-page follies, the truth is that state and local governments have very limited authority when it comes to immigration. Any ultimate solution will require both increased border security and a path to citizenship for the workers who play such an important role in our economy.
Still, that doesn’t mean state and local governments have no role to play. During the last legislative session, I filed a bill that would have created a new pathway to legal work that Texas needs. My “essential worker” bill received strong support from business groups. But because of the divisive politics that surround anything related to immigration, this practical, common-sense, very limited solution didn’t even get a committee hearing.
The good news is that there’s another session coming up in seven months. As Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, I’ll be looking closely at security on the border and how to improve our efforts there. And as a member of the Senate committees on Economic Development and on Business and Commerce, I’ll continue advocating for innovative programs that help businesses and develop the economy by creating the trained, dependable workforce we need.
I’ll also continue working with our leaders in Washington DC – in a constructive, productive, non-political way – to get the immigration solutions we so desperately need.
And I’ll watch to make sure that, in Texas at least, we don’t end up with “solutions” that actually make the problem worse.
In the meantime, I encourage you to grab a friend, take a couple of hours this week, and go check out 9500 Liberty. It’s a great movie, and it’s worth your time – not to mention the hours of overheated rhetoric you’ll be able to see through as you learn more about this issue.