During his first 18 years in Congress, the view from Lamar Smith's office was of a parking lot. Now, in his 13th term, he looks out upon the Capitol dome. Seniority confers perquisites.
Today he chairs the House Judiciary Committee that has custody of the immigration issue. When first elected, his Texas district -- then 42,000 square miles, five times larger than Massachusetts -- included 400 miles of the border with Mexico. His district has meandered north and now is 150 miles from the border. It includes portions of San Antonio and Austin. But Smith still looks south, toward the flow of illegal immigration, which he considers a uniquely comprehensive problem, affecting schools, health care, employment and the culture.
Smith wants you to know that he is Texas to the marrow of his bones, even if he did go to Yale. There he was one year behind George W. Bush. Smith is proud to have been, he thinks, the only freshman who subscribed to Field and Stream magazine. When his ancestors got to Texas in the 1850s, they were immigrants entering an established Hispanic culture. He notes that San Antonio is a "tri-cultural city" -- 7 percent African-American, 30 percent Anglo and 60 percent Hispanic. America, he says, has the world's "most generous legal immigration policies. We admit as many legal immigrants as the rest of the world combined."
Regarding illegal immigration, however, he proposes a program of "attrition through enforcement." Workplace enforcement, that is.
He says such enforcement has declined 70 percent in the last two years, and fines levied on employers of illegal immigrants are treated by businesses as a bearable cost of doing business as usual. Nationally, 250,000 businesses are using E-Verify, the program to quickly validate the legality of workers, and each week another 1,300 businesses sign up for the system.
We are, Smith notes with quiet asperity, not finishing the fence, and the 1,200 National Guard troops President Obama sent to the border will leave one day. Although half a million persons are caught trying to enter the country illegally each year, Border Patrol agents tell Smith that two to four get in for every one apprehended. Hence his estimate that up to 2 million are entering illegally each year.
He thinks some physical barrier is necessary -- he says the fence near San Diego reduced illegal immigration there 95 percent -- but no barrier will be sufficient. We must "reduce the attraction of the job magnet" so fewer illegal immigrants will come here and more will go home. Workplace enforcement is a "disincentive to enter and an incentive to leave."
Some people say such policies will put Hispanic votes beyond the reach of Republicans. Smith serenely disagrees.
He believes, on the basis of quotes he is pleased to share, that many on the left see amnesty for illegal immigrants as a way to build a permanent Democratic majority. He, however, is confident that Republicans can compete for Hispanic votes while -- indeed, by -- insisting that everyone "play by the rules."
Notice, he says, that in 2010 the three Hispanics elected in statewide races -- Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval -- were all Republicans. In Texas, two new Hispanics were elected to Congress, Quico Canseco and Bill Flores, both Republicans. Like the other three freshman Hispanics in the House (Idaho's Raul Labrador, Washington's Jaime Herrera Beutler and Florida's David Rivera, all Republicans), Canseco and Flores stress border security.
Smith does not flinch from questioning the practice of "birthright citizenship" -- awarding citizenship to anyone born in America, including children whose parents are here illegally. He cites a Houston Chronicle report that in 2005, 70 percent of births in Houston and Dallas public hospitals were to illegal immigrant mothers. Today, they account for nearly 10 percent of births nationally.
He believes the practice of birthright citizenship rests on a misconstruing of the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court, he says, has never addressed the "precise question" of the meaning of this: "All persons born ... in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States."
He favors ending birthright citizenship as currently administered and thinks it is possible to "write a statute to get five votes" on the court. If he does write one, this soft-spoken man will be carrying a big stick of legislative dynamite.