Immigration Reform Now- Part 4: Fences and Barriers

For the past 20 years, the main thrust of immigration reform has centered on enforcement and border patrol and fencing. It has become sacrosanct in conservative circles. We often hear, “Secure the border first.” Personally, I don’t understand why border security improvements cannot be done hand-in-hand with immigration reform. The Reagan amnesty, or IRCA, dictated increased enforcement along the border and at the workplace. However, from 1986 to 2002, there was a 300% increase in the number of border patrol agents that failed to stem the tide of immigration. To conservatives, this indicates that a greater effort is needed that includes the National Guard, fencing, or all of the above while to the liberal it means that despite the increased resources dedicated to enforcement, there will regardless be illegal immigration until there is “comprehensive” reform. The true solution is probably somewhere in between, but both sides have dug in their heels and the result is nothing.
Actual border patrol philosophy changed when stations were moved closer to the border starting with the El Paso station in an attempt at interdiction. Still, the flow of illegal immigrants did not abate. In the San Diego area, the solution was fencing that forced potential illegal immigrants away from check points and to isolated and usually dangerous locations.
Regarding that construction of fencing along the border- something many conservatives believe is the be-all-and-end-all of the immigration problem. From a strictly fiscal standpoint, it is an expensive proposition. The border itself is 2,000 miles long crossing various terrains and canyons. The Congressional Research Service notes that the final cost may be $49 billion. Different areas require different materials due to the terrain. Once built, there is the problem of maintaining the fencing and monitoring them. The cost per mile can fluctuate so it is difficult to get an accurate handle on the final cost other than it would be more expensive than most people think. Where built and where effective, they have forced potential illegal immigrants to other crossing points. That probably accounts for the increased death rate among potential immigrants. Incidentally, once here, they are then less apt to leave. Ten years ago, the average length of stay was 2.6 years while today it is almost five years (40% of illegal immigrants have been here greater than a decade). Conversely, before IRCA, 80% of illegal immigrants returned to Mexico within two years.
Including the United States, there are 10 border barrier projects greater than 500 miles either built, proposed, or under construction. Similar to the US, India has a problem along their eastern border with Bangladesh as Bengalis enter India looking for jobs. To date, it is estimated that the barriers constructed by India have decreased illegal crossings by less than 20%. China, which has experienced an influx of North Korean illegal crossings, has built barriers. However, the decrease in the flow of North Koreans into China is due more to North Korean efforts. That is, they are doing a better job of keeping their citizens in rather than China keeping them out. Perhaps, Mexico could learn something from North Korea, if they wanted to. And as the Israelis have painfully learned, no amount of fences, barriers and checkpoints can deter the occasional terrorist. Additionally, although many ranchers and farmers along the border state that they live in fear, they are also pretty much against physical barriers.
Instead, there are less costly solutions such as virtual fences- sensors, monitoring, surveillance stations and other devices that alert human agents to potential illegal crossings. Think of the costs here. For a physical fence that costs $49 billion, we may stem the tide of illegal crossings. However, Boeing has developed a $2.5 billion virtual fence that if implemented along the entire 2,000 miles of border, would probably be just as or more effective than a physical fence. In my mind, the choices are obvious. Obviously, actual physical fencing makes sense in certain areas and has been effective in certain areas. But, the solution is not to push the problem elsewhere (creating a whole new set of problems), but to cease the flow of people.
Perhaps the strangest attack on enforcement strategies concerns the role local and state law enforcement can and should play here. This is the view of many Latino special interest groups and the Obama Administration. While it is certainly true that the Constitution confers immigration policy on the Federal government, the Liberal argument that the Federal government AND ONLY they should enforce the laws is silly on its face. Its further weakened by the fact that Federal enforcement is lax or non-existent. Congress explicitly authorized local enforcement through the 287(g) program that trains local officials in immigration enforcement. Most of it centers on detention until Federal authorities take over. In effect, the Arizona law currently being litigated is nothing but a huge 287(g) program on steroids.
To understand its effectiveness, in 2006, thirteen border counties in Texas opted into the program. Although not all crime was committed by illegal immigrants and not all crime was even reported, criminal mischief complaints decreased 34%, theft was down 30%, burglary down 13%, aggravated assault decreased 16%, sexual assault was down 54%, and murder was down 15%. Whether this occurred because more illegals were caught or they were just scared away is inconsequential. It proves that with more boots on the ground (that do not have to be National Guardsmen), the greater the chances of seeing actual enforcement! The more eyes and ears out there, the less the chances of illegal immigrants hiding in the shadows. If they even want a chance of a pathway to citizenship (if we were to go that route), then they must be driven out of the shadows.
To summarize, physical barriers and insistence upon a 2,000 barrier along our southern border is unrealistic and expensive and would probably cost even more than projections and not seriously stem the flow of illegal immigrants. They may be more effective in certain areas and should be used in those areas. Encouraging “virtual fences” makes more sense along the entire border. State and local officials should be allowed to enforce immigration law violations and the Federal government should seek their help. The more boots on the ground, the greater the effort.
In the interim, two things are a must. Conservatives need to stop their insistence on the border fencing as the be-all-and-end-all solution without abandoning the concept where it makes the most sense. Conversely, Liberals need to stop their lip service to border security and actually support the efforts in this area. A great start would be expanding the 287(g) program and getting out of the way of states like Arizona who are actually taking steps to enforce the laws the Federal government either cannot or will not enforce. Again, there is no reason “comprehensive” reform cannot occur simultaneously with border security enhancements. The “me first” attitude and statements are better left on the kindergarten playground, not the halls of Congress.