It appears that Rick Perry, the governor of border state Texas, has just discovered he has illegal aliens in his jails. And that some of them are being released back into the community to possibly commit more crimes when they should have been deported. (Federal law dictates that aliens convicted of felonies are automatically eligible for deportation.) He wants some heads to roll – just preferably not his. So he has written the classic “strongly worded letter” to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

That’s leadership. When in need of doing something without doing anything, write a letter.

This most recent controversy is the latest evidence of how dire is the need for comprehensive immigration reform. (And by “comprehensive,” I am using the word literally, not simply as a euphemism for amnesty.) As we saw in the previous Congress, it won’t be easy. This isn’t a partisan issue, and the normal levers of power available to congressional leadership are lacking here. Immigration reform pits Democrats against Democrats, Republicans against Republicans; governors against congressman and mayors against governors; liberals against liberals and conservatives against conservatives; cats against dogs and dogs against mice. The only common enemy seems at times to be the poor agency responsible for enforcing the conflicting laws and intentions of Congress and its critics: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). On one day it is criticized for not enforcing the law aggressively enough; on another, it’s criticized for being too aggressive.

Another messy aspect of immigration, also in need of legislative redress, is the fact that many cities, Houston being one of them, have enacted local “sanctuary laws” that block local authorities from cooperating with federal immigration enforcement authorities.

The ruckus in Houston emerged after the Houston Chronicle wrote an oddly timed series on the issue of illegal immigrants who have been convicted of crimes being released back into Harris County. The story was oddly timed because ICE has recently announced one of its most ambitious programs ever, called Secure Communities, in which it seeks to partner with local jails and prisons for the express purpose of identifying and deporting criminal aliens who have served their time and are due for release. Additionally, Harris County has stepped up and partnered with ICE via the 287g program (allowing ICE to train local law enforcement at the jails). This side of the story got shorted in the Chronicle expose, forcing ICE to issue its own fact sheet to clarify the progress being made in Harris County.

One suspects, then, that quite a bit of gamesmanship is taking place here – both by the Chronicle, which increases readership with its alarmist perspective, and Gov. Perry, who tries to dodge accountability for local criminals being released back into Texas communities by local jails. (After all, it is the local law enforcement agency that processes the prisoners. ICE agents can only take action if they are notified by the local facility.)

Across the country, state and local authorities have resisted cooperating with federal immigration enforcement for years. The 287g program has been in place, and only a miniscule number of localities, such as the Harris County Jail, have committed to the partnership. Indeed, most have actively resisted. No small wonder. Engaging immigration enforcement is a costly and politically dangerous move. It’s far easier to dodge responsibility, and then blame the feds for not doing their job.

But that won’t solve the immigration mess. The simple truth is that ICE doesn’t have anywhere near the resources necessary to single-handedly fix the illegal immigration problem in America. The only way we can ever solve the problem is by implementing more efficient programs that take advantage of new technologies, such as Secure Communities (and US VISIT and SEVIS before that); finding a solution in the private sector that will meet labor needs while not undermining the nation’s immigration laws; and recognizing that enforcement will take a partnership between federal and state/local authorities.

The Secure Communities program is a step in the right direction, but nobody should have false expectations. The program is in a pilot stage now as ICE attempts to implement new technologies that will provide local authorities the resources to quickly and accurately identify aliens being jailed for felony crimes. (The current approach? The jailer asks the criminal alien and hopes he suddenly grows a conscience and tells the truth.) Secure Communities will take several years to fully implement. Plenty more criminal aliens will “slip through the cracks,” as the Chronicle puts it, though it’s not exactly slipping through the cracks when most local jails take no steps whatever to identify criminal aliens and report them to ICE.

Most important, and perhaps most challengingly, the program will require the full cooperation and collaboration of state and local authorities – including local law enforcement, who may flinch at the new financial burden and jurisdictional headache, as well as the locally elected officials who may buckle under the pressure of immigration lawyers and advocates who oppose any crackdowns on illegal immigration as “Gestapo” tactics (to use a phrase too easily tossed about by ICE critics these days).

In short, progress is being made but there is still a ways to go.

Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More