Federal Response To Immigration Unconvincing

The national debate over illegal immigration is heating up. It's been fueled by Arizona's passage of a controversial law, which allows police to question people suspected of being undocumented. This past week, President Obama announced his plan to send 1,200 National Guard troops to help secure the U.S.-Mexico border, a plan that some say is inadequate. Host Liane Hansen talks with Rick Nelson, director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The national debate over illegal immigration is heating up. It's been fueled by Arizona's passage of a controversial law which allows police to question people suspected of being undocumented.

This past week, President Obama announced his plan to send 1,200 National Guard troops to help secure the U.S./Mexico border, a plan which some say is inadequate.

Rick Nelson is director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's in our Washington studio. Welcome to the program.

Mr. RICK NELSON (Director, Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program): Thank you, Liane, for having me.

HANSEN: In addition to sending more troops, President Obama says he'll request an extra $500 million in border security funding. Do you think that's a sufficient response?

Mr. NELSON: Well, I think the $500 million is a more important part of the story than the 1,200 troops themselves. And the $500 million above and what they're already spending is a significant amount of money and it's very encouraging because this is going to have to be a long-term solution.

HANSEN: So the sending of National Guard troops is what, an interim measure or is it of substance?

Mr. NELSON: I'm not sure how much of substance it is. I mean, they're going to be somewhat helpful, but they're not going to be carrying out the responsibilities of what the actual Border Patrol agents do, the law enforcement type activities. I think this is more of a symbolic gesture to the Arizona senators, both of whom are going to be required for any comprehensive immigration reform.

HANSEN: What about the Border Patrol police? I mean, aren't there enough in the ranks to handle the issue without the National Guard?

Mr. NELSON: Well, there's certainly been a significant increase of Border Patrol troops, especially since the '90s. There's approximately 20,000 on the front lines out there. And we've seen, actually, significant increases in security along the border, as well. So, while certainly there is a good number there, there can be more on the border and I think we're going to have to continue to figure out what that right balance between the number of people and the technology.

HANSEN: Back in 2006, then President George W. Bush sent 6,000 troops to the border. Four years later, why are there still some of the same problems?

Mr. NELSON: That's a great point, Liane, and that's exactly why again these are all interim solutions or Band-Aid fixes. Until we actually embrace comprehensive immigration reform, we're going to continue to struggle with these issues and have this debate.

HANSEN: Okay, so let's talk about comprehensive immigration reform. In your opinion, what do you think is the best approach to deal with the issue?

Mr. NELSON: Well, it's a three-part process is the way I put it forth. The first thing we need to do is we need to continue the efforts to make the border secure and that's going to continue to fund the customs border protection to appropriate levels, continue to complete the security apparatus along the border.

Secondly, we're going to need to go ahead and pursue legislation. Congress is going to have to take this on. I know their agenda is busy, but this is something that's going to have to be done. And then, lastly, we're going to have to improve our bilateral relations with Mexico. And as we saw with President Calderon's visit, I think this is what President Obama is seeking to do.

HANSEN: There's also violence and drug smuggling along the U.S./Mexico border. Do you think illegal immigration and escalating violence is one in the same or should these issues be addressed separately?

Mr. NELSON: That's a great question. I think sometimes we conflate the two issues. The Mexican government is starting to put significant pressure on the drug cartels south of our border. I think that's where you're seeing the increase in violence. There's, you know, tens of thousands of Mexican citizens have been killed as a part of this violence. And some of it is spilling over into the United States. But it's a very different issue than comprehensive immigration reform.

HANSEN: In the 1990s, Southern California seemed to be the preferred route for illegal immigrants. That stretch of border is now more secure. The problem seems to have moved east to Arizona. Can Arizona learn from the approach that California took?

Mr. NELSON: Oh, absolutely. Interestingly enough, you know, two of the safest cities in the United States are San Diego and El Paso, which are both border towns. In the '90s, you know, it was kind of chaotic along the San Diego border. Significant progress was made and it's now one of the more secure border crossing points that we have.

And you've seen, I think, a lot of this violence and this illegal activity now moving to Arizona. So there are certainly some things that could be learned and I think Arizona can gain some additional measures.

HANSEN: Do you think there's enough political motivation on Capitol Hill to address immigration reform anytime soon?

Mr. NELSON: I'm not certain it'll be addressed before the next Congress. In fact, I'm certain it won't be addressed, but hopefully it'll be addressed in the next Congress.

HANSEN: Rick Nelson is director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington. He joined us in the studio. Thank you.

Mr. NELSON: Thank you, Liane.

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