Celebrating the Passage of the Senate Immigration Reform Bill

Today, we join in celebrating the passage of the Senate immigration reform bill. As we’ve written before, we believe the bill at its core is ambitious, bold and super smart. It improves the legal immigration system, strengthens border security and interior enforcement, puts unauthorized immigrants on a path to citizenship and makes prudent investments in our ports of entry with Mexico which will create jobs on both sides of our border.

As the CBO noted last week, the bill will also accelerate economic growth in the US, create jobs and reduce the deficit by as much $1 trillion over the next two decades. Politically, it has gained votes as it moved through the Senate legislative process and passed today with a veto-proof super majority. Given what little good has come from Washington in recent years, both the integrity of the bill and its broad political support are truly remarkable accomplishments for the original Gang of Eight.

This is not to suggest the legislation as it comes out of the Senate is perfect.  In the months ahead we will be advocating that there is a much better way to throw money at the border than the one imagined by the Corker-Hoeven amendment. Adding more fencing and doubling the border patrol is bad policy. It is incredibly expensive while promising little return on investment, damaging to border states and communities, and is sure to antagonize our Mexican neighbors and other allies throughout Latin America. As a matter of policy, having far more troops on our friendly border with Mexico than we do on the North Korean border is a global embarrassment for the US. Given the huge security gains along the US-Mexico border in recent years, and the ambitious border provisions already in the Senate bill, this massive “surge” simply isn’t needed (see my recent op-ed for more on this).

If Congress is so interested in throwing money at the border there is a better way – investing in modernizing our 47 ports of entry with Mexico and adding more customs agents at all our air, land and sea ports of entry.  Given the enormous amount of trade and tourism now flowing through these ports due to rising standards of living around the world, modernizing our ports of entry has become one of the most important infrastructure investment priorities for the nation. 

Take trade with Mexico, for example. In 2009 total trade with Mexico was $300 billion. In 2012, it had grown to $536 billion and is on track to hit close to $600 billion this year.   Mexico is now our third largest trading partner in the world, and our second largest export market.  We trade more today with Mexico than we do with the UK, Germany and Japan combined, and Mexico now buys twice as much from the US as China does.  In recent years the trade relationship between our two countries has evolved into one of the most important binational trade relationship between any two countries in the world.  Estimates are that fully 6 million American jobs now depended on this trade, a number which is going to increase as the trade flows grow in the years ahead.  

The infrastructure which facilitates this exploding trade relationship, however, was designed for an era of trade much less robust than what we are seeing today. Wait times on the Mexican side of far too many ports are unacceptable today, let alone what they may be in 5 to 10 years as Mexico continues to grow and modernize.

The US needs a more aggressive plan to ensure that the economic opportunity these trade flows offers our businesses and workers can be realized. Doing so is going to require investment. Investment in ports will provide significant return by creating millions of jobs on both sides of the US-Mexico border, something that new border strategy of the Senate bill threatens rather than supports. 

There are at least three things Congress can do with the $40-$50 billion of new spending on the border that would be far more beneficial to the US than the current Senate plan:

First, Congress can increase the number of customs agents from the proposed 3,500 to an additional 10,000. These agents will help facilitate the increased levels of trade and tourism while providing more security at all our ports.
Second, Congress can provide $10 billion over 10 years to the port of entry infrastructure grant program in the current Senate bill.   
Third, Congress can adopt Senator John Cornyn’s thoughtful proposal to open up ports to public-private partnerships, deploying private capital to help grow and maintain this vital national infrastructure.

The original Gang of Eight Senate border and immigration bill was one of the most impressive legislative accomplishments of the Obama and Bush eras. It is a good bill, bipartisan to the core, ambitious while also creating jobs and reducing the deficit. Whether the rest of Congress can keep the integrity of this bill as it moves forward in the coming months remains to be seen. We remain hopeful, but have no illusions how about much work needs to be to ensure that President Obama signs not just an immigration bill later this year, but a good one.