A steady surge of unaccompanied and undocumented children, mostly from Central America, who are crossing into the country along the porous Mexican border continues to fuel debate about illegal immigration and, specifically, what the federal government should be doing to control it.
An estimated 66,000 refugee children have fled from their homeland just this year alone, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the issue of illegal immigration is one that U.S. Representative Tim Bishop of Southampton, the longtime Democrat representing the 1st Congressional District, and his Republican challenger, New York State Senator Lee Zeldin, do not see eye to eye on.
Mr. Bishop, who is seeking reelection next month, thinks that the U.S.-Mexican border needs to be fortified, but he also wants to give those undocumented immigrants already living in the country the chance to eventually earn citizenship. During his tenure, Mr. Bishop has voted in favor of the federal DREAM Act, which stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, legislation that would give “conditional non-immigrant status” to those who meet specific criteria, and opposed legislation introduced by Republicans that he said failed to address the issue in a comprehensive way, such as the Secure the Southwest Border Act of 2014. That legislation, which is also stalled, would have provided funding to accelerate judicial proceedings for immigrants, set aside money to provide temporary housing for unaccompanied minors crossing the border, and also provided funding to boost border security.
On the flip side, Mr. Zeldin said he does not support legislation that would provide any form of “amnesty” to those undocumented immigrants who are already in the country, and thinks that the leaders in Washington, D.C., need to invest more time and money into increasing border security and enforcement.
Mr. Zeldin said that, in his opinion, the lack of enforcement along the country’s enormous southern border is the primary culprit; he also thinks that the parents of Central American children who are encouraging their children to illegally enter America are misguided.
“While Americans have limitless amounts of compassion for the plight of children all around the world living in oppression and poverty, we don’t have the bandwidth as a nation for limitless amounts of children to come to the U.S. without their parents,” Mr. Zeldin said. “The message to parents needs to change—to not turn over your children to the ‘coyotes’ and to the dangerous mission to the U.S. If they come here, they will be humanely detained, but also be expeditiously reunited with their parents back home.”
A “coyote” is a term used to describe those paid to illegally smuggle immigrants across the border, typically through Mexico.
From his perspective, Mr. Bishop said he still thinks the solution lies in the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act that he is co-sponsoring in the House of Representatives and was passed in the U.S. Senate in 2013. The legislation, which has not yet been acted on in the House, would take a series of steps to address border security, like increasing the number of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers who patrol the U.S.-Mexican border, and lay out how to deal with the immigrants who are already in the country in a humane and fair manner.
The bill, sponsored by U.S. Representative Joe Garcia of Florida and supported by Mr. Bishop, would give those already in the country illegally the opportunity to apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant status, a designation that would allow them to remain here without fear of deportation or removal for six years. After that, RPI status can be renewed for another six years if the immigrant has remains employed, undergoes another background check, and pays taxes, among other requirements.
The proposed law would also allow those who have worked in agriculture to apply for “blue card status” if they’ve been employed for at least 100 days in the two years prior to December 31, 2012. Blue card holders would be eligible for permanent legal residency in five years.
At the same time, the legislation would institute an employment verification system, known as e-Verify, that would prohibit employers from hiring or recruiting those who are not authorized to work in the country.
“We have an economy here on eastern Long Island that is inordinately dependent on this work force,” said Mr. Bishop, who says the legislation would be a “giant step forward,” if approved. “Well over 50 percent of farm labor and agricultural work that takes place on Long Island is done by undocumented immigrants.
“And it’s not like farmers wake up every morning saying, ‘Oh boy, another chance to break the law,’” he continued. “They wake up thinking, ‘How am I going to bring in my crops? How am I going to get my crops to the market? How am I going to feed the people dependent on my crops?’”
As for Mr. Zeldin, he thinks the border is even more porous now than it was a few months ago, pointing out that more border patrol agents have been pulled from their primary duty so they can “babysit the surge of children coming across the border.” He also thinks that the comprehensive immigration reform now on the table simply does not do enough to shore up the country’s borders.
“A lot of people in favor of the bill like to talk about it as if it is tough on border security,” Mr. Zeldin said of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, “but what’s more important than the spin is how the legislation would actually play out if it were to go into effect.
“We’d still have a vulnerable border that is open to illegal immigrants to come into this country,” he said.
Mr. Bishop disputes that take on things, insisting that the border is not nearly as porous as some would be led to believe, pointing to recent attempts to increase patrols. But the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website notes that, in 2013, there were nearly 421,000 attempts made to illegally cross the American border as opposed to approximately 365,000 attempts in 2012. The 2012 figure, however, represents a nearly 50-percent decrease in number since 2008, according to the same website.
Mr. Bishop stresses that it would be logistically impossible to deport the nearly 13 million illegal immigrants now living in the U.S., and pointed out that attrition through enforcement, as is done in some states, has not worked in the past.
The congressman also insists that he does not support amnesty for illegal immigrants, as Mr. Zeldin insists; rather, the incumbent said he thinks that those who are here illegally—and stay out of trouble with the law—should be permitted to pursue a path to citizenship rather than being sent back home.
“There are no easy answers,” Mr. Bishop said. “There is an enormous amount more that needs to be done, but we have doubled the number of border protection agents we have on the southern border over the 12 years I’ve been in office, doubled the budget of customs, immigration and enforcement, built several hundred miles of fence, and expanded our ability to patrol the border through technological means.”