Last week the Arizona legislature voted for, and Governor Jan Brewer signed, a strict new anti-illegal immigration law that, among other things, requires law enforcement officers in the state to arrest people they encounter in official efforts who are illegally present in the United States. Tossing aside potential federalism issues with the state law, the fact that a state has felt the need to adopt legislation for what we all agree is a basic federal government responsibility – protecting our borders – is alarming and telling of the paralysis in Washington.

The Arizona legislation is going to incite the praise as well as the ire of many people in a wide variety of policy camps. However, supporters and critics alike have one thing in common; they believe that the federal legislature has dropped the ball. Instead of dealing with an explosive issue that directly affects an estimated 12 million people living in the United States illegally, millions of people who seek to come to the U.S. for work each year, and everyone concerned about terrorism and drug trafficking, Congress and the White House have continued to punt the issue. Granted, in a Congressional election year, this issue is likely toxic to members. But this repeated federal failure has resulted in state action that many are concerned will allow racial profiling and discrimination.

The disappointing fact is that, despite the claims of some pundits, like Jack Cafferty of CNN, that “virtually nothing has been done to secure the nation’s borders,” much had been done to make us more secure and move us closer to the credibility needed with the American public to gain useful and practical federal legislation. During the Bush Administration:

  • 600 miles of border fence were constructed in the highest trafficked border areas;
  • The size of the Border Patrol was more than doubled to almost 20,000 agents;
  • All people in the country illegally who were detained by law enforcement remained detained until they could be removed instead of being released on their own recognizance;
  • Employers of illegals feared federal worksite raids that would shut their businesses down, deplete their workforce and subject them to thousands of dollars in fines; and
  • Billions were devoted to developing and deploying new technologies along the border to help law enforcement.

Each of these indices of progress has been rolled back under the current administration due to a fundamental ideological disagreement in how to address illegal immigration. One administration believed that there are laws that should be enforced; the other feels the current immigration laws are flawed and “inhumane” and therefore should be ignored. The problem with this policy is that if one believes our immigration laws are flawed – and I agree that they need serious revision to better secure our country from terrorists as well as better promote an appropriate mix of talented immigrants to fuel our economy – then you have to at least try and change them. It is not enough to say you don’t like them and won’t effectively enforce them — Americans demand you make a change.

And that is why the nation is in a situation where Arizona is demanding the right to deal with illegal immigrants in the state and protect its own borders. This issue is not going away. And, actually due to the Arizona initiative, it looks like the state’s plea for federal help may finally be answered. President Obama and Senator Reid recently indicated that they are willing to consider immigration reform prior to the midterm election; even before priority climate change legislation.

Whether this legislation will ever actually come to a vote in Congress is still an honest question despite the stated intentions of party leadership. Indeed, Democrats may benefit more from just publicly debating policy options to excite their base than actually allowing a potentially failed vote on a liberal bill that will enrage a large swath of anti-amnesty voters. Regardless, Americans in many states – like their Arizona siblings – will continue to demand action in overwhelming numbers and, unfortunately for both those content with the status quo and supporters of broad federal reform, will take matters into their own hands for the time being.