Cortés: Secure the Border, Please

Posted September 8, 2010 at 1:37pm

No one wants the border secured more than the Hispanic community. We are stunned when conservative Members of Congress, national conservative media, policy and opinion leaders think Hispanics are against efforts to secure our borders. Perhaps this is because of media distortions, but nothing is further from the truth — America’s Hispanic community supports and encourages efforts to secure our borders.

[IMGCAP(1)]Why? The occasional bad actors that slip through hide first in our community — and then terrorize it. As they learn who is undocumented, these criminals use this knowledge to fortify their criminal enterprises, preying on the vulnerability of the undocumented and their family members, who are too afraid to call the police.

Too many Hispanic-American citizens across the country can’t call the police when they are victims of crime, as the criminals threaten to turn in their friend, neighbor or family member. A serious dark side exists as violent criminals extort the undocumented, abusing women and then daring them to call the police, and forcing children to run drugs — or else be turned in to the authorities.

Border only is not a solution. But border security is a beginning.

Our country will not be safe until our border is secured. Our communities will not be safe until these violent criminals are exposed and they can no longer hide in our communities.

If our nation is ever to be truly secure, we must not only secure our borders but enact legislation that provides legal channels for future workers and requires the undocumented to register with the government and earn legal status. Only when we know who is here and why they are here will the criminals be exposed, convicted and deported.

Through the fury surrounding the Arizona law, we have learned a lot. We have learned that California, New Mexico and Texas have made significant progress in securing their borders. Why, then, hasn’t Arizona made the same progress? Because, we learned, Arizona’s border is mostly national parks, forest and American Indian reservations. Shouldn’t that make it easier to secure, with no issues of private property rights and lengthy court battles over eminent domain?

We learned from Homeland Security Border Patrol officials that Arizona’s terrain presents greater security challenges than those of California, New Mexico and Texas. We learned that while new technologies and approaches are evaluated, significant progress has been made securing the Arizona border. We also learned from the Arizona Department of Public Safety that crime is down an average of 11 percent across the state. Violent crimes are down 13 percent, with a surprising 20 percent decline in the murder rate.

So, is Arizona safer?

We are left wondering what the real situation is on our border. Is it the Wild, Wild West seen on endless TV newscasts, or is the Arizona border objectively, measurably secure?

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio): we need an objective, independent determination of how secure our border really is and what is needed to complete the job.

We urge you to appoint a bipartisan delegation of Members of Congress — the more conservative the better — to visit and report on the state of our border security. Give them a month, two at the most, to travel the southern border, meet with Border Patrol agents, federal, state and local law enforcement and report their findings.

Border only is not a solution. But until we know the status of our border, the rest of the immigration reform conversation is significantly more difficult. Once we have an independent assessment of our border and what is needed to complete the job, the rest of the immigration reform conversation will be significantly easier.

America is a nation of laws. America is also a nation that believes punishment should fit the crime. Let’s have that conversation. Let’s determine punishments for the misdemeanor offense of entering the country illegally — or overstaying your legal residency. We can solve this problem without allowing criminals to unleash a reign of terror in Hispanic communities and without driving a wedge of fear and prejudice between Hispanic and mainstream American communities.

The Rev. Luis Cortés Jr. is president of Esperanza, the largest Hispanic faith-based network in the country.