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Isackson recaps immigration forum

In the absence of a comprehensive immigration reform package, the House of Representatives passed a border security bill on September 14 that calls for more than 800 miles of fencing, more lights, mor

Isackson recaps immigration forum

In the absence of a comprehensive immigration reform package, the House of Representatives passed a border security bill on September 14 that calls for more than 800 miles of fencing, more lights, more cameras and more motions sensors to gain control of the border. Critics call the bill nothing but election time politicking by Republicans who want to look tough on immigration before November. On September 14, a panel of immigration experts, convened by Envision San Diego, discussed get-tough provisions and other potential immigration solutions. KPBS Border Reporter Amy Isackson prepared this story.

There was no disagreement that the current immigration system is broken. But how to fix it sparked vigorous discussion among the panelists and studio audience.

Right off the bat, Border Patrol Union President TJ Bonner sparred with an audience member and hosts Hal Clement and Gloria Penner stepped in. Bonner said the federal government will never control the border unless it gets serious about fining employers who hire illegal immigrants.

Bonner: They will continue to come as long as they can find work here. We need to crack down on the employers.

Hal: Kind of like eating soup with a fork.

Audience: Build a wall.

Bonner: A wall won’t stop them, Sir. We need to make it simple for an employer who has the right to work in this country legally, and then crackdown on those employers who disregard or disobey the law.

Audience: Resolve the problem on the border first, and then when we don’t have illegal immigrants, someone will do whatever it takes for there to be growth in this country.

Central to the immigration debate is whether to shut off the jobs magnet that draws illegal immigrants to the United States, or build up enforcement to make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to get into the United States. Some at the forum argued bigger, better fences are the answer.

Here, Professor Wayne Cornelius who directs the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UCSD, disagrees.

Cornelius: We have invested well over $20 billion in border enforcement since 1993. There is no evidence that it has created an effective deterrent.

Claudia Smith with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation added what fencing has done is make crossing more dangerous by channeling migrants to more remote and treacherous areas of the border.

Smith: When you expand the fence around the Tecate area here, that’s going to happen, is that the traffic is just going to shift probably to the foothills of the Imperial Valley and the deaths are going to skyrocket. All that’s happening is redirecting the traffic and not stopping it.

Because "get tough" enforcement strategies make it more difficult to cross the border, illegal immigrants are staying in the United States longer and bringing their families to join them. This has increased the fiscal costs to state and local governments.

UCSD’s Cornelius said the increased cost demonstrates the failure of enforcement policies.

Meanwhile, San Diego Minuteman Founder Jeff Schwilk said it is one reason illegal immigrants should leave.

Schwilk: Obviously, if you’re illegal and you’re not paying your fair share of taxes, and you have three or four kids using the school system, and you’re having your babies in the hospitals for free, and it adds up to an astronomical amount of money and we need to deal with that.

Escondido City Councilman Sam Abed said the cost of illegal immigration is what prompted his council to draft an ordinance that would fine landlords for renting to illegal immigrants.

Abed: One out of four are illegal immigrants in Escondido. The cost to the city of Escondido is estimated to be $12 million a year. How can we continue to allow the flood of illegal immigration to Escondido and our region?

But when State Senator Denise Moreno Ducheny was asked if she thought illegal immigrant are a drain on the state, she challenged the previous speaker Abed.

Ducheny: If the gentleman from Escondido, if 12,000 people left his town tomorrow, how many businesses close up? Are we willing to say California will become a food importer, instead of a food exporter? If businesses move to Mexico and Arizona and Thailand and other countries, because they can’t do business here, which is what I hear from my constituents.

Ducheny said without the labor undocumented workers provide many agricultural businesses would go under.

But going beyond the conflicting economic arguments, San Diego Union Tribune columnist Ruben Navarette says much of the debate has ceased to become about border security, terrorism or who’s coming legally or illegally.

Navarette: It’s come down to cultural differences. We have never in this country had a debate about immigration that was race neutral, or ethnic neutral. It is always about keeping out that group of people. And now it is happening again.

Amy Isackson, KPBS news.