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July, 25th 2010

Jon Barela, immigration, and deviating from the party line

– Liz Mair

This week, the much-debated Arizona immigration law will come into effect, thereby raising the profile of immigration, generally, as a political issue again, just in time for the final 100 days of campaigning ahead of this year's midterms.

As in previous years, many Republicans have staked out a hard line on the issue.  Backing for Arizona's law as a model for other states is widespread. 

Unlike in previous elections where immigration also emerged as a hot-button issue, however, one rarely hears much from any Republicans beyond the "I support Arizona's law and we need to secure the border, and I do not support amnesty" trifecta (the new version of the old "I support health savings accounts" answer to each and every question about health care).

That may not be surprising, given that immigration is a topic now being treated with equal importance to health care according to recent Gallup polling, and voters aren't keen on the illegal variety of it.  However, it is an answer to immigration questions that strikes this wife-of-an-immigrant who sees the immigration system as close to a farce as either naïve or badly truncated.  In particular, it seems not to recognize the mess that is our immigration system.  It also doesn't answer the questions, what to do with the millions of illegal immigrants already here?  What about a guest-worker program?  Should we expand and simplify legal immigration?  Should a pathway to citizenship exist for illegal immigrants, if extensive conditions are attached?  These are the things that it seems few candidates really want to talk about in any detail, lest they offend or upset anyone (including me, who is known to be quite liberal on the topic).  But no matter where you stand on immigration as an issue, it's a big one, and one where a few further thoughts should be provided by anyone running for federal or statewide office, in my opinion.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I met Jon Barela, running for Congress in New Mexico's first district a few weeks ago, and found him willing to have a much more frank and open conversation about immigration than your average Republican-- especially your average Republican who would not easily be described as a hardliner on the subject-- even in a few short minutes. 

Barela, a fellow "recovering lawyer," and former Intel executive who has worked in the high-tech industry more broadly, also, sees immigration as a labor issue and a security issue.  He says securing the border needs to be our number one priority.  He says we need to crack down on drug dealers, gang members and the like who are here illegally.

In other words, he says the things that other Republicans say, and which pretty much everyone, Republican or Democrat, agrees with.  But he says more than that, too, and doesn't shy away from taking positions that some people won't like, and which may not suit every voter he's targeting 100%. 

Barela, who grew up in Las Cruces, studied immigration at Georgetown.  He says he is not "a round 'em up and throw 'em out" guy.  He does favor a guest-worker program, and giving existing illegal immigrants access to it.  He wants people to be encouraged to enter it, and for illegal immigrants here presently to, for example, pay back taxes.  Barela is adamant that those concerned that all illegal immigrants want to remain in the US permanently are misunderstanding the situation.  His preferred approach to solving the immigration problem would be predicated on the idea of people being able to come and go, but without an actual, or effective, open-borders situation arising.  Barela says he has spoken with migrants being smuggled in by coyotes, and that for many of those he spoke to, their objective was to make money, but ultimately return home to Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere and open businesses.  He has concerns that especially in the current economic climate, immigrants can be viewed negatively, but considers that their goals and objectives are in fact compatible with those of most Americans.  In their drive to reach American soil-- legally or not-- he identifies a certain entrepreneurial spirit, which he thinks can benefit Americans just as it benefits immigrants and their families, if properly harnessed. 

In reviewing the most serious instances of security threats to Americans domestically, in recent years, Barela also makes a valid and serious point: All of Timothy McVeigh, those who flew planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 9/11, and Jose Padilla were either legally entitled to remain in the US indefinitely as citizens, or had entered here legally.  Barela would like to stop treating the immigration system as a primary safeguard of Americans' security, and instead use law enforcement more robustly.  He says these are views that don't always sit well with all of his would-be constituents.  However, he thinks it is important to debate the immigration issue seriously, and unemotionally -- and he speaks about it in just that way: Candidly, substantively, and without hyperbole or drama.

I highly doubt that Barela's election will be decided on immigration.  First, the district in which he is running is essentially metropolitan Albuquerque, an area that is hardly a hotbed of conservative sentiment on the subject.  Second, however, as in many other swing districts, jobs, the ability of small businesses to hire and expand, and the economy, generally, are the top issues.

Nonetheless, Barela may find that he wins points from voters-- including those who do not agree with him on immigration-- for being so forthright about what he does think.  For as much as Americans are concerned about the economy-- and immigration, possibly as a mutation of that primary concern-- they're also frankly sick and tired of political hackery in candidates for public office.  Sticking to abbreviated, focus-grouped soundbytes as rigorously as many candidates do, on immigration, especially, falls exactly into that category, just as failing to discuss other areas of concern and other policy prescriptions beyond the very obvious and utterly inoffensive is another.  Barela gets high marks from me for having the courage to discuss immigration policy a bit more broadly, and in a way that may not check all the boxes of base Republican voters, or anyone else, but is clear, and gives a good idea of what he's thinking, even in a 15-minute nutshell. 

Barela could well retake this seat this year.  I personally hope he does-- we could do with more like him in Congress.  Keep an eye on his campaign, and check out his website here. [intro]

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