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'Danged fence' on border being built with rhetoric

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'Danged fence' on border being built with rhetoric

Public-policy debates can generate their own, almost irresistible momentum. In the heat of rhetorical battle, we can be so busy scrambling after new data and devising cleverer arguments that we leave older yet unresolved matters behind. It's almost as if we tacitly agree to forget about them.

Case in point: What U.S. Sen. John McCain recently termed "the danged fence."

Sen. McCain, along with his electoral challenger J.D. Hayworth, demands that the U.S.-Mexico border fence be completed and the border "sealed" before anything else is done on immigration reform.

So does Gov. Jan Brewer, who declared in April that "the federal government has failed in its obligation and moral responsibility to secure our border." So, it turns out, does President Barack Obama, who's sending more money and troops. So, it seems, does everybody concerned about illegal immigration. "First, secure the border," is the currently accepted formulation.

But what about the fact that we can't seal the border?

That is the consensus among those who physically (as opposed to rhetorically) staff the front lines. The fence is at best merely one tool in reducing, not ending, the cross-border flow. It's physically impossible to seal the border at a cost that the American people could be reasonably expected to pay. Consider:

  • Robert L. Boatright, deputy chief of the Tucson Sector of Customs and Border Protection, recently told the Washington Post that it would be impossible to "seal the border," as some critics demand. "The number of agents it would take 24-7," he said, "would be incredible."
  • A 2008 University of California survey of Mexicans who set out to cross the border illegally found that while many encountered setbacks, 97% reported that they eventually succeeded.
  • A Border Patrol field supervisor in Naco recently told the New York Times that "the fence is not going to stop people from coming across … it's going to relocate some to other areas to cross where there isn't a fence."
  • Even former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in 2008 mustered only a tepid endorsement: "I don't believe the fence is a cure-all," he said. "Nor do I believe it is a waste. Yes, you can get over it; yes, you can get under it. But it is a useful tool that makes it more difficult for people to cross."
  • The border is "porous" for a reason: On a typical day, nearly 1 million people cross legally from Mexico into the United States, according to U.S. government figures. About 270,000 vehicles cross the Southwest border every 24 hours, along with about 57,000 truck, rail and sea containers.
  • Some 40-45% of undocumented immigrants don't sneak across the border anyway; they enter on legal visas but then don't leave.
  • In March the federal government essentially ended the highly touted "Secure Border Initiative" after 14 critical Government Accountability Office reports concluded that the high-tech system of cameras, radar, and sensors was "over-promised and under-delivered."

Some of these points are surely debatable, but why does this basic issue not seem to matter anymore? Have we just moved on? Maybe so: Our fence fixation may in fact reflect an unconscious need to find a technical, quasi-military "fix" to illegal immigration; that way we can avoid the fundamental policy debates that form the core of this problem and make it so difficult to resolve.

True, the fence offers an appealing symbol for the many Americans who are enraged or anxious over our national identity and determined to defend it. But that suggests that the barrier is less a cost-effective obstacle than an enormously expensive prop for politicians. The GAO in 2009 reported that the 600-mile-plus barrier between San Diego and Brownsville, Texas, cost $2.4 billion to build and will cost $6.5 billion in upkeep across two decades.

Money well spent? The Border Patrol first began erecting physical barriers in 1990 in its San Diego sector. In 2007, Congress authorized some 700 miles of fence to be constructed along the Southwestern border. The plan was to obstruct illegal entry in and near border cities, leaving the fearsome Arizona desert to discourage crossings there. That didn't work.

"We believed that we would be able to get control more quickly than the smuggling routes could change," Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said recently. "That proved to be an erroneous assumption."

Errors happen. Illegal immigration continues. Whatever one's viewpoint, the nation's immigration questions are not going to be answered by planting ever more metal barriers in the Southwestern sand, no matter how loudly we demand it.

Let's simply by finally agreeing that the border cannot be secured, and that we must together seek solutions elsewhere. Maybe we need to impose more restrictions on the millions of legal visitors who don't leave; maybe we craft a labor policy that regulates the flow of workers across the border; maybe we get serious about sanctioning employers who hire the undocumented. But fixating on the fence merely distracts us from addressing the substantial issues of demographics, geography, and market forces that underlie this complex and contentious topic.

In fact, the next time someone demands that the border be sealed, it might be worth asking: "What part of 'impossible' don't you understand?"

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

Bill Hart is a senior policy analyst at Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

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