No Immigration Law Will Heal This Border

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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"What march?"

Mike Tellez seems to be the last to know. As we talk, a Channel 7 News van pulls into the lot. By the time Representative Steve Pearce arrives, in about 90 minutes, the New York Times, Bloomberg News and PBS's "Frontline" will all be represented along with the local newspaper. CAFe, a "faith-based nonprofit community organization" in southern New Mexico, plans to turn Pearce's town hall into a rally for comprehensive immigration reform. Tellez invited Pearce to his community center months ago. The hall, in a working-class neighborhood of Las Cruces -- about 50 miles from El Paso, Texas -- is called the Dream Center.

A mile away, about 60 people are leaning into the shade afforded by Holy Cross Church. Sarah Nolan, executive director of CAFe, is speaking into a microphone. She's thought of everything. The group has a parade permit for the walk to the Dream Center. It has a permit to congregate in the lot adjacent to the Dream Center. It has a permit, just in case some of the elderly marchers need it, for a lot next to the Sonic burger about halfway en route.

"Tell your stories. Talk about your faith," she says. "Leave him with something before he goes back to Washington, D.C."

Nolan, 32, has a tattoo of a cross on the back of her neck. It makes me wonder what Dorothy Day would've looked like with ink. It also looks a bit like a dagger if you contemplate it for too long.

Before leading the march, Bishop Oscar Cantu speaks of "11 million people who have been pulled here by work, pulled here by bonds of family." It's a curiously passive construction -- as if the striving and ambition and danger of an illegal crossing were all the work of some impersonal magnet.

Back at the Dream Center, the lot is filling up. There's a battered Toyota Corolla with an "Obama Si Se Puede" bumper sticker. There's also a black pickup with American and POW/MIA flags mounted on the rear bumper. About 50 people, almost all Hispanic, are waiting in line by the center's side door. An older white man is explaining to another that Franklin Roosevelt created Social Security to make Americans docile and dependent on the government. It's going to be one of those nights.

By the time the marchers arrive, there are almost 200 people here. What do we want? Citizenship. When do we want it? Now. They file past two stone tablets listing the Ten Commandments and take seats inside the Dream Center. An aide to Pearce is complaining to Tellez that "our people" are all in the back of the line and can't get in. It's the language of the immigration debate repurposed for a staging of the debate.

Pearce arrives. Dressed in a blue polo shirt and khakis, a gentle potbelly protruding over his belt, he is an amiable presence. Wire-rim spectacles wrap a balding, gray head. Pacing in front of the crowd, he appears to be girding for a difficult night.

He has brought a chart on the deficit, which both he and the chart say is $1.1 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office recently announced it is closer to $600 billion; like many of his Republican peers, however, Pearce seems to prefer the older, bigger number. After a question on Obamacare repeal comes the first of the night on immigration.

Pearce opposes comprehensive reform. He opposes citizenship. And he will not be budging from those positions tonight or any night soon. "I think controlled immigration is what we need," he says. He supports work visas for undocumented immigrants who have jobs, which he calls a compromise midway between comprehensive reform and deportation.

Some of the questions come from whites not associated with CAFe. They tend to be along the lines of IRS-Benghazi-Impeach-How-Come? These are also the people who cheer every time Pearce says illegals have to get in the back of the immigration line. Given the opportunity to talk them off the ledge on conspiracies, Pearce pushes them further out. Obama, he explains, is worse than Richard Nixon because Nixon used the IRS to target individuals while "this president is targeting entire groups of people." On Benghazi, Pearce says, "Decisions were made to let American soldiers perish under fire." Pearce was one of a handful of members who refused to vote for John Boehner for speaker of the House on the grounds that he was too accommodating to Democrats. He may actually believe some or all of what he's telling these people.

Many of the questions come in Spanish and focus on the "militarization" of the border, though it's not clear what exactly the questioners mean by that. Some talk of police officers doing immigration duties. Others talk of the waste of doubling the border patrol (which has already doubled in size since 2004) when that money could be better spent on education. Pearce swats them down.

"Speculation that the border is secure is absolutely not based on fact," Pearce says. He has a habit of turning his back to people while they ask him a question, often seeking a sip from his straw in the process. Pearce wants thumbprints and retina scans at the border. He says we are interdicting "less than 4 percent of the things crossing the border." It's not clear if some of the people seated before him are included in those "things." It's not a very precise word. Sort of like "deficit."

I found Nolan at the back of the crowd. Why are you doing this when you know he isn't going to bend to pressure? I asked. Whether in Spanish or English, the people lining up to ask for immigration reform are all firmly rebuffed. Nolan's answer is basically twofold. Pearce was recently the subject of afavorable profile in the Wall Street Journal, which especially noted his willingness to meet with Hispanic constituents in a district that is almost half Hispanic. If he's going to get credit for meeting with Hispanics, she wants him to get an earful.

But Nolan also wants more. She is so passionate in discussing families "broken" on both sides of the border that I feel compelled to ask whether her own family is one. "No," she says, "I'm second generation." The point, then, of this public exercise of people speaking past one another, with no common ground, and past their representative, who has heard it all before, is to build something big enough to break down the wall. Nolan is trying to build engagement in public affairs -- what we call "citizenship."

It takes time. The white people attending tonight are almost all old. Many of the Hispanics are young, with small children in tow. For those with a long view, the future of the immigration issue, like the future of the Second District of New Mexico, is not that hard to discern. Democracy is a numbers game. And sometimes it's a game that requires steady pressure and patience. "We have a plan," Nolan says. "For 2018."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net