J. Pepper Bryars: Why immigration reform has lost my support

Undocumented children sleep at a holding center after crossing the border from Mexico. (AP)

There was a time when I would have listened to the arguments from the Alabama Coalition for Immigration Justice, the group behind a hunger strike in Birmingham to bring attention to what it calls a “broken immigration system.”

That time began after I spent a few weeks at a ranch in Kenedy County, Texas, not too far from our border with Mexico. I had a great time there — hikes through the mesquite woodlands, star-gazing far away from city lights, and butchering my first nilgai, an antelope-like beast imported from India for sport but that has become a nuisance. The most memorable experience, however, was seeing the blue border patrol vans packed with illegal aliens heading south on U.S. Highway 77 towards Matamoros. I’d see several every day. The looks on their faces, staring at me through the shaded windows of the van, have stayed with me. They looked defeated, sad and hopeless. It made me heart-sick.

In my mind, America’s collective DNA needs the type of people courageous enough to leave their homes to come to a strange land and sweat-out a living amid unfamiliar customs, a foreign language and an ever-present danger of deportation. That takes guts, and we need more of that. It’s what my ancestor, Thomas Briaus, had when he left France in 1700. It’s what built our country, and it’s what makes it so different – and better – than every other place.

My ancestor walked through the door 314-years ago, and I’ve always liked the idea of holding it open for the next guy. But it’s getting heavier.

My concerns have always been the national-security aspects of a porous border, the contradiction between amnesty and the rule of law, and fears that today’s illegal aliens aren’t assimilating into the American way of life – the English language and the belief in limited government and individual responsibility. Even with all that, I was still the type of hard-right conservative who was willing to support a comprehensive deal because those concerns were balanced by my compassion for anyone who wants freedom and the hard work that comes with it.

But the pro-amnesty crowd has overplayed their hand, at least with me. Here’s why.

First, we’re sending the wrong message. People south of the border have heard that amnesty is on the table, so they’re rushing across before the deal is struck and the door is shut. The border patrol catches about 700 people a day crossing through the Rio Grande Valley alone. To make matters worse, the White House’s decision to arbitrarily defer deportations of illegal adults who arrived in the U.S. as minors has sparked a wave of children being sent across the border – about 50,000 in the last eight months. Our border patrol stations in Texas and Arizona look like Third World refugee camps, full of children huddled together and looking lost, confused and frightened.

Our compassion has created a humanitarian crisis, and our message – our actions – must change from one of amnesty to one focused on border security.

Second, the other side has proven itself to be disingenuous. Conservatives like me wanted to play it straight –- seal the border first, and then we can do something about assimilating the illegal aliens into American society. Yet a casual look at the pro-amnesty side’s goals shows a secure border isn’t part of their plan. For instance, the first item on the Alabama Coalition for Immigration Justice’s principles for reform calls for the “immediate moratorium on detentions and deportations.”

If you don’t apprehend those who illegally cross your border, and don’t deport those who are here illegally, then you don’t really have a border, do you?

The seventh principle states that we must “remove any conditions that make a citizenship and legalization process conditional upon implementation of enforcement measures.” So the whole idea of simultaneously securing the border while implementing amnesty is a deception.

They don’t want a border at all, much less one that’s enforced. Negotiating with someone with those principles is pointless. Sadly, it’s apparent that the consequences of a comprehensive approach, combined with the bad faith of the pro-amnesty crowd, has caused many of us to push away from the table and regretfully say, “No deal.”

(J. Pepper Bryars grew up in Mobile and is now a writer living in Huntsville. Contact him at jpepperbryars@gmail.com and jpepperbryars.com.)