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The 'danged fence' is a big fib

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Smart v. Stupid

The 'danged fence' is a big fib

Anyone who tells you the solution to illegal migration is more border enforcement is either a darned fool or a damned liar

  • The border fence near Sasabe, 2009.
    J. N. Stuart/FlickrThe border fence near Sasabe, 2009.

Anyone who tells you the solution to illegal migration is more border enforcement is either a darned fool or a damned liar.

In this election season, politicians are seemingly apoplectic about illegal immigration. But few are advocating the real solution — an end to illegal hiring. Despite the fantasies of America-firsters, people from south of us (and to a lesser degree from Africa and Asia) don’t come here for our way of life or to plop out progeny. They come here for the cash. There is a job waiting for anyone who’ll work under the table and live under the radar.

The notion that we would “secure our border” from the influx of illegal workers has always been silly. We’ve never completely sealed our border and neither has anyone else, with the possible exception of North Korea. Countries have border control to prevent the smuggling of untaxed goods. Countries that are successful at controlling undocumented workers do it by making it legally unattractive to hire them.

Why would so many Republicans demand doing the impossible before they are willing to even discuss the sensible? It’s a “wedge issue.” Wedge issues are aimed to pry voters away from their larger set of values by making them angry about just one. The goal is to create single-issue voters. For years, abortion was the pivotal wedge issue. During the heyday of the Evangelical Right, it was described as a “litmus test.” No matter what else a candidate stood for (the wedge logic went) if he was pro-choice he was unfit to serve. Millions of Christians — forsaking all that stuff about casting stones and forgiveness — were herded to the right.

Religious influence in politics is declining. This is partly because of a continuous string of pastor and priest scandals. It’s also because congregations are starting to reject politics in the pulpit. But it’s mostly because we’ve all become tired of the idea that God only speaks through Chicken Little. Even gay marriage no longer promotes foaming at the mouth the way it used to.

So a fresh wedge is needed. Hey, the economy is bad! Let’s blame the Mexicans!

Candidates like Jan Brewer have recycled the Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s, Operation Wetback of the 1950s; the Illegals Crisis of the 1980s. Interestingly, these campaigns also targeted people who simply looked or acted like Mexican citizens, just as the judge recently noted SB1070 could. During times of economic hardship, illegal hires are a convenient demon. We deported over one million Mexican-looking people during the 1930s, many of them Americans. Ten years later, we found we needed them back to help out with our war. The Bracero Program was not without its faults, but Mexicans did come back when we needed them. Their contribution to the war effort was meaningful.

Illegal workers simply wouldn’t be here without illegal employers. They’re not speculators coming over just to see what’s up. But wedge-issue architects (with names like Brewer, Pearce, Hayworth, Armey and Tancredo) don’t want you to know about the simple solution. They’d like you to vote on anger, not on logic. A vote based on logic, you see, favors solving this on the employer side.

Beyond that, a wedge issue must never, ever be solved. Once an issue achieves wedge status (when it makes voters so apoplectic they’d vote against their own best interests) the loudest complainers become the most dedicated to keeping it alive. They are literally getting rich off of it.

This brings us back to the argument for the “danged fence.” The fence is already mostly built. People already climb over it. Almost half of illegal hires in this country entered legally and overstayed their visa. None of these would be affected by fence. There are twice as many bodies guarding the border as there were twenty years ago. We’ve flirted with all sorts of cameras, electronic sensors and balloons in the sky. There are over 21,000 border patrol officers for fewer than 7,000 miles of border. That’s three officers for each mile, or eleven for each mile of the border with Mexico. They are supported by over 30,000 other Border Patrol and Customs employees. There is no shortage of boots on the ground at the border.

As far as the border (and the danged fence) everything that can reasonably be done is being done — and then some. Everything, that is, except stopping illegal employment at the source. Most cheating employers are American citizens; we can’t deport them. But we should fine or jail them. At that point, our immigration policies become simple and logical — make illegal hiring costly and make guest working legitimate, regulated, and limited.

It would only take a few dozen criminal prosecutions of employers to put things back on track. Then the Border Patrol could go back to catching smugglers and criminals rather than rounding up wealth creators and busing them back south. Now wouldn’t that be progress?

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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