Political rhetoric ignores border reality: 'Secure first' calls ignore facts, undermine reform
by Dennis Wagner - Jun. 20, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
Amid a growing national angst about illegal immigration, Americans keep hearing a chorus: Secure the border first. Then talk about immigration reform.
The idea appeals to public sentiment, and it seems like a simple demand.
But what do pundits and politicians mean?
Is a border secure only when no one crosses illegally and when no contraband slips through?
If some permeability is acceptable, what is the tolerable amount?
Political leaders mostly dodge those questions, and for good reason: Anyone with a minimal knowledge or understanding about the nearly 2,000-mile swath of land between Mexico and the United States realizes that requiring a secure border establishes an impossible standard.
One reason: There is no way to conclude success because authorities have no idea how many undocumented immigrants are getting through. Authorities can count only the number of unauthorized intruders captured. Such unavoidable uncertainty prevents any absolute assurances that no one is sneaking over, making declarations of victory impossible.
Another reason: The motivation and creativity of those trying to get across.
Impoverished Mexicans, willing to gamble their lives and savings to reach America, subject themselves to desert heat and extortion or torture by coyotes. Drug runners risk being caught and imprisoned or getting killed by competitors.
So the smugglers dig tunnels, create false compartments, bribe border guards, fly ultralight planes and use every means imaginable to get over, under or across the line. The more security there is, the higher the smuggling price and the greater the profit incentive.
Here is another way to consider the problem: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a leader in the anti-immigration movement and acclaimed as America's toughest sheriff, cannot secure his own jails. Every year, despite armed guards, electronic locks and video monitors, inmates smuggle drugs in from the outside and sometimes even escape.
No one would blame Arpaio. All penal institutions, regardless of security measures, have breaches. Yet imagine if America adopted a position that no new laws could be passed regarding prison reform "until the nation's jails are secure."
Tom Barry, director of the Transborder Project at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., said the demand for a completely secure border is a ploy by those opposed to immigration reform to prevent new policies.
"No matter how much enforcement you have, there will always be people coming through," he said. "Since that is true, opponents to immigration reform will always be able to say the border is still not secure . . . and therefore we cannot pass immigration reform."
At some point, the question becomes: How much border enforcement is necessary? Or enough?
David Shirk, director of the Transborder Institute at the University of San Diego, said the United States has more federal agents deployed along the Mexican line than at any time in the past century.
"It seems to me the argument can be made that we've gone as far as is reasonable," he said. "The border will never be secure enough for some people. . . . Politicians are using the idea of the border as a phantom menace and establishing an unreachable goal."
Border enforcement rises
For the past decade, critics have complained that the U.S. government does little or nothing to stem the flow of undocumented intruders.
"Our nation's border security efforts are a litany of failure," Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., wrote in a recent commentary for the congressional newspaper The Hill. "Ultimately, Congress must fix our broken immigration laws. . . . But we cannot address that difficult task until we, as a nation, control our own borders."
While the success of America's border enforcement may be questioned, historical data reflect an escalation of effort:
• Today, there are 22,800 U.S. Border Patrol agents, five times the number in 1993. About 17,000 agents work along the Southwest corridor, double the number from seven years ago. They are supported by National Guard troops, local police and thousands of port officers using everything from drug-sniffing dogs to gamma-ray machines.
• In Arizona, the primary smuggling corridor on the U.S.-Mexico line, there are now more than 3,600 Border Patrol agents, about 10 for every mile of boundary with Mexico.
• The budget this fiscal year for Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency charged with guarding U.S. borders, is about $17 billion, double what was spent in 2003.
• The number of illegal immigrants arrested by Border Patrol has plummeted by almost two-thirds in just five years, a combined result, authorities say, of fewer people trying to cross because of the economy and increased security.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in April, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the Southwest border is "as secure now as it has ever been." Challenging the sincerity of lawmakers who demand security, she asked, "Will it ever be reached as far as Congress is concerned, or will that goal post continue to be moved?"
Still, amid a decade of record spending on enforcement - increases that began under Republican President George W. Bush, who twice tried and failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform - America's estimated illegal-immigrant population increased from 8.5 million to 11. 9 million. The vast majority of the immigrants came from Mexico.
Apprehensions of illegal crossers in the desert began to decline only in the past few years, as the nation's economy and job market collapsed. In 2009, Border Patrol agents arrested 550,000 undocumented immigrants on the Southwestern border, though that is considered a fraction of the total slipping through. Drug seizures continue to increase, though it is unclear how much of that reflects increased trafficking and how much is a result of improved enforcement.
Amid the ebb and flow of statistics, the calls for tighter border security continue.
But public understanding is stymied by simplistic notions of border dynamics and geography.
Those unfamiliar with the vast border zone have little sense of its challenges or the creativity of trespassers. Many ignore the value of the millions of legal crossings each year, the vital importance of legitimate trade and the fact that border crime is a two-way street.
According to Alonzo Peña, deputy assistant secretary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, each year $19 billion to $29 billion from illegal-drug and human trafficking is smuggled from the United States into Mexico, where it is used by drug cartels to finance their violent operations. Only $200 million gets seized. As part of controlling the border, the southward flow of cash and arms also must be stopped.
Gustavo Mohar, Mexico's intelligence chief, shakes his head at the idea of securing such a huge swath, an area exceeding 100,000 square miles.
"The correct word is 'managing' a border," he said. "You cannot close it."
Even the U.S. Border Patrol does not set its sights on complete security. Instead, its mission is to establish "operational control," a term defined by Congress as the prevention of all unlawful U.S. entries.
This year, Border Patrol claimed success along 894 miles of boundary, less than half of the Mexican line, or about one-tenth of the nation's land and sea perimeter. Even in sectors that are supposedly under control, Border Patrol records show, smugglers and illegal immigrants get through by the thousands.
Some anti-illegal-immigration groups acknowledge that fully securing the border is a pipe dream.
"I couldn't, if you held a gun to my head, tell you it could ever be done 100 percent," said Bill Davis, director of Cochise County Militia, a group of armed civilians who patrol Arizona's southern flank. "If you can cut it down from 100,000 (illegal entries) to two people, great."
Davis, who advocates a doubling of manpower and technology, said a border is controlled when agents monitoring surveillance cameras and sensors receive no more than one alert per night.
Appealing to fear
No matter how many federal troops and agents are on patrol, no matter how many sensors, cameras and fences are employed, many will try to sneak across the border, and some will succeed.
Each time that happens, opponents of immigration reform will be able to declare that the line is not defended, that America is not safe.
They appeal to patriotism, asking why the world's most powerful nation cannot protect its sovereign boundaries.
They appeal to fear, suggesting that terrorists potentially could mix in with the daily swarm of Hispanics heading north for opportunity.
Public passion is so high, said the Transborder Project's Barry, that no one does a cost-benefit analysis of border enforce- ment.
"Everybody is jumping on the border-security bandwagon, including moderate Democrats," Barry said. "It's not driven by anything real on the grid, not by violence or invasions of illegal immigrants . . . not based on any real assessment of threats to the nation."
The rhetoric is magnified by fears that Mexico's explosive cartel violence may bleed over the international line. In fact, FBI and Arizona records show crime is dramatically down statewide and along the border. Murders in Arizona decreased by one-fifth last year; aggravated assaults dropped nearly 9 percent.
Those numbers provide little consolation to southern Arizona residents weary of undocumented immigrants and armed drug couriers traipsing across their properties. Still, the statistics contradict claims of a cri- sis.
"I hear politicians on TV saying the border has gotten worse," said Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. "Well, the fact of the matter is, the border has never been more secure."
Calls for reform
At the Washington, D.C.-based Federation for Ameri- can Immigration Reform, press secretary Bob Dane described border enforcement without reform as "a fool's para- dise."
FAIR presses Congress to impose rigid immigration limits, opposing an amnesty program or an increase in the number of work visas.
Dane said most of the nearly 12 million illegal immigrants came to America for work, so there is a simple policy change that would force them out: Require employee verification and crack down on businesses that hire undocumented workers.
"Simply declaring the border is secure without workplace enforcement is like putting locks on the door with a sign that says, 'The jewels are all yours if you can find a way in,' " Dane said. "The jobs magnet is the reason folks come and the reason they stay."
Susan Ginsburg, senior policy adviser for an international nonprofit known as Borderpol, which works to make international borders safer, said it is a mistake to require border control as a prerequisite for changing U.S. policies because the existing system created a broken border in the first place.
"Comprehensive immigration reform will help because it will make the border more manageable," she said.
Michele Wucker, executive director of the World Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said border incursions happen wherever two countries have unequal economies or black-market trade.
Wucker, author of "Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong," said those who demand a sort of iron curtain prior to policy change are obstructionists: "It means don't ever come up with a workable system."
Arizona has the most to gain from a new policy paradigm, Wucker argued, because the status quo made the state a thoroughfare for smuggling. Yet the state's political leaders, caught up in a wave of public opinion, no longer press for reform.
"When I see John McCain saying, 'Build the dang fence,' I'm very sad," Wucker said. "Arizona would benefit more than any other state from immigration reform at a national level. They're really cutting off their nose to spite their face."
Read more: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/2010/06/20/20100620border-security-arizona.html#ixzz0rpl53ZJs
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Political rhetoric ignores border reality: 'Secure first' calls ignore facts, undermine reform
Posted by Angela Valenzuela at 8:56 PM