It's the Security, Stupid

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If you follow politics at all — or even if you don't — you're soon going to get tired of one word this fall: security. As far as both parties in Washington are concerned, security is what everyone is looking for, so any issue you care about ahead of the November election is going to be packaged as a "security" issue. Worried about flat wages or higher taxes? Republicans and Democrats alike want to talk to you about "economic security." Angry about Bush's handling of the war in Iraq or weak-kneed Democrats getting in the way of his domestic surveillance programs? Both sides have a message about national security for you.

If that doesn't sound annoying yet, it will soon. At his first meeting with reporters after returning from the five-week August recess Tuesday, for example, House majority leader John Boehner opened by saying, "We are going to continue our focus first and foremost on security, whether it is national security, homeland security or border security. I think the American people want to know that their safety and security needs are being addressed and Republicans have made and will continue to make that our number one priority." The Democrats, not to be outdone, have chosen as their constant theme this fall that Republicans are "making us less secure," be it abroad in the Middle East, at home in New Orleans or in the workplace.

And so, inevitably, the furious immigration debate of last spring, which for a moment was about reforming a system everyone agrees is broken, has been boiled down to the issue of "border security." Most Republicans have concluded that a hard-line approach focused on tightening the U.S.-Mexico border is the best political play this season. Neither the broad package of reforms negotiated by the Senate, which would have produced a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for the 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country, nor the more limited program envisioned by House conservative leader Mike Pence has any momentum. Both proposals have been set aside in favor of a series of bills already making their way through the system that will fund fences, border guards and electronic surveillance.

Behind the move is another security issue: job security for incumbents on the Hill. Conservative voters are furious about the porous U.S.-Mexico border. And the fears that an enraged Hispanic population would punish the GOP for taking what some called anti-Hispanic positions on tightening border enforcement are long gone. "We haven't seen any empirical support for that," says one senior GOP aide. The aide points to close races around the country where Democrats are falling into line behind a border-security-first approach, and a recent AP survey that showed no significant new voter registration in cities where pro-immigration rallies had taken place.

Some in the GOP are not happy. "Border security is not the end of the story," says Mississippi Senator Trent Lott. "Most people in the country are still concerned and think we should act on [immigration reform], and it contributes to the impression that we're not doing our job. We need to do more than just provide funds for fencing." But if anyone does bring up other parts of the debate between now and November, you know how they're going to get handled. Senate majority leader Bill Frist was asked on Wednesday if he would support more programs to check the legal status of laborers at work sites. Without hesitation he said he would support such "verification at the workplace — in terms of border security."