WASHINGTON -- In American politics, few issues are as clouded by zany solutions as immigration reform. It might seem like Donald Trump came up with his proposal to build a giant wall along the U.S.-Mexican border on his own. But despite the wall being tremendously costly and impractical, and fraught with racist undertones, it’s not exactly a new idea.
The debate has been moving in Trump's direction for years. Unable to pass comprehensive immigration reform, President George W. Bush had to settle for a bill authorizing the construction of a 700-mile long border fence that cost billions, disturbed wildlife habitats and hardly disrupted the flow of immigrants.
A few years later, the Obama administration shut down efforts to build a “virtual fence” after $1 billion had already been wasted. Not to be outdone, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) proposed an underground electric border fence when he first ran for office. When thinking about the border, politicians tend to gravitate to the most elemental approach.
Richard Carmona can attest to this. In this week’s episode of the Candidate Confessional podcast, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona talked about his run as Democrat for the Arizona senate seat in 2012. Carmona, who had worked as a deputy sheriff, had more experience with the immigration issue than his opponent, Jeff Flake.
But Carmona’s expertise and nuanced stance was no match for Flake’s simple answer. “My opponent ... had very crisp, clear statements on every issue,” Carmona said. “So, like, on the border issue, he always would say, ‘Well, we have to secure the border first.’ And if you looked at the Republican playbook, that was it.”
Carmona tried to play up that experience in law enforcement.
“When they asked me I said, ‘Well, let me tell you my perspective as a [deputy sheriff] who has worked the border for 25 years. ... I've done arrests on the border, I've done listening and observation posts, I've seen drug dealers and planes and drones come across,’” he said. “And I said, 'There is no way, no politician can tell you, that you absolutely have to secure the border. That should be aspirational, but the fact of the matter is, every measure we have, they have a counter measure. They have radios that listen to our radios. They come up with submarines. They fly drones across at a low level under our radar.’”
Instead of border walls and border security, Carmona had a more practical solution. “Until we reduce demand for the product on this side,” he said, “this will be a challenge for generations to come.”
Carmona lost the election. And when he was elected to the Senate, Flake joined seven other senators to form the Gang of Eight, which pushed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed his chamber but failed to get a vote in the House. For his sponsorship of that bill, Flake earned the backlash of the very conservative voters who propelled him to his Senate win.
Listen to the podcast above, or download it on iTunes. And while you’re there, please subscribe to, rate and review our show. Make sure to tune in to next week’s episode, when our guest will be Anthony Weiner, the former congressman, who discusses his brush with scandal and his campaign for mayor of New York City.