“It was well-known that these twin-engine aircraft … were flying drugs and landing in these grass runway strips in south Texas,” Smith said during an event hosted by Center for Immigration Studies on Sept. 5.
“I was bothered by it. I didn’t know I was going to be in a position to try to do something about it.”
As it happened, Smith was elected in 1986 to the House to represent Texas’s 21st district, which, at the time, shared more than 300 miles of common border with Mexico.
“When you share 300 miles with Mexico, that rivets your attention,” he said. “You are going to be interested in illegal drug-running. You’re going to be interested in illegal traffic of any kind—human cargo, other cargo. And you’re going to be interested in the number of people coming across the border illegally.”
When Smith started his first term in 1987, Ronald Reagan was president and a big immigration amnesty bill had just passed, which eventually granted amnesty to about 4 million illegal immigrants.
Smith sought membership on the House Judiciary Committee as well as its Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, both of which he has served on for his entire tenure. He isn’t seeking re-election this year and will retire in December at the age of 71.
The first immigration-related bill he introduced was a direct consequence of seeing the unmarked planes fly contraband into the United States years earlier.
“[I] got the administration to put up five Aerostat balloons with radar on them all along the border, so they could track that aircraft,” Smith said. The balloons had radar that could detect low-flying and slow aircraft. After early hiccups (involving wind and people shooting holes in the balloons), newer designs are being used that are capable of detecting movement for 200 miles.
A report from Customs and Border Protection said the combination of the Aerostat balloons and on-the-ground enforcement has reduced the number of unidentified aircraft flying over the border from 8,500 to less than 10 per year.
The next immigration-reform package to be enacted after the 1986 amnesty bill, the Immigration Act of 1990, significantly raised the cap of legal immigration. It also revised all grounds for exclusion and deportation, authorized temporary protected status for aliens of designated countries, revised and established new nonimmigrant admission categories, revised and extended the Visa Waiver Pilot Program, and revised naturalization authority and requirements, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Smith’s biggest lament is that he didn’t actively oppose the increased cap.
“It did some things that were right. … But it did raise the cap several hundred thousand,” Smith said. “So, it went the wrong direction, as far as I’m concerned.”
The 1990 act also mandated the creation of an immigration-reform commission, now commonly known as the Barbara Jordan Commission, after the congresswoman who chaired it.
The commission’s initial recommendations were released in 1995 and Smith said he and then-Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) tried to mirror its recommendations in the 1996 legislation they introduced to the House and Senate, respectively.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1996 was born, but not before being watered down.
Most of the parts that were kept related to illegal immigration and border security and are issues that continue to arise today.
“It doubled the number of Border Patrol agents. It made it easier to deport illegal immigrants who had committed crimes. It has the beginnings of an entry/exit system to check visa overstayers. It had the beginning of an E-Verify system to make sure that individuals applying for jobs were legally able to work in the United States. It outlawed sanctuary cities,” Smith said. “By the way, this is in 1996. All the law needs to be is enforced. We don’t necessarily need new laws to address sanctuary cities.”
On the legal immigration side, the initial act reflected the Jordan Commission, which suggested increasing merit-based immigration and decreasing chain-, or family-based, migration. The commission recommended to cut the family-based categories to adult children of U.S. citizens, adult children of legal permanent residents, and siblings of U.S. citizens.
“Trying to make sure that legal immigrants were going to provide for the needs of America, be able to get jobs and care for their families if they got here, and not be a drain on the economy,” Smith said.
Smith said the bill initially had wide bipartisan support, and was backed by the Clinton administration, including then-Attorney General Janet Reno.
“So, we thought the wind was at our backs. Everything looked great until two or three weeks before we were due to be on the House floor,” he said.
“And the liberal immigration-activist groups put such pressure on the administration that literally [over] two or three weeks, the administration completely reversed themselves. And Janet Reno and the president came out against the bill. So we were blindsided. We were ambushed.”
Smith said a subsequent amendment knocked the legal reforms out of the bill.
“We lost the legal immigration reforms that we’re still trying to enact today,” he said. “Here we are … 22 years later, still trying to implement some of those reforms.”
Smith said the extreme partisanship in Congress right now means smaller, standalone bills have more chance in passing.
He said there are two reasons why Democrats have become “so much more liberal, or maybe even radicalized.”
“Part of it is the activist groups have become radicalized themselves, where they’re not really interested in border security anymore,” he said. “I think there’s a second component, and I’ll be honest about this. I think they realize that if they can achieve their goals, which is to increase immigration and give amnesty to illegal immigrants, that it is very likely that those folks are going to be voting Democratic in the future and that’s going to bolster that party.”
However, he’s hoping the two-week lame-duck session in December will see the passage of the Securing America’s Future Act—which failed on June 21 by a 193–231 vote.
Many pundits are predicting that the Democrats will take control of the House in the November midterm elections, which Smith says, will herald an amnesty push for illegal immigrants, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals population.
Smith said President Donald Trump is doing more for border security and immigration than any other administration he has seen.
“I’ve been waiting 30 years for a president who would enforce current immigration laws,” he said. “And I think we finally have a president who will.”
Smith said the media’s coverage of immigration is “probably the worst example of media bias and slant that I’ve seen.”
“President Trump was doing was exactly the same thing President Obama did, without the media scrutiny and without the criticism,” he said, referring to the recent uproar over the temporary family separations at the border while the parents were being prosecuted for crossing illegally.
“Don’t criticize the president for enforcing laws. Get Congress to change the law so that’s no longer the law. But that’s an example where I think he got unfairly criticized,” Smith said.
As for what’s next for Smith, he’s not sure, but he wants to stay engaged with immigration issues.
“It’s a fascinating subject. I don’t know of any other issue that is so complex, so emotional, so multifaceted, so intractable than immigration,” he said. “And it impacts every aspect of our society. I mean, you just can’t name another issue that is sort of all-pervasive other than immigration.”