Hitting a Wall on Immigration Reform – September 2006

The last minute efforts by Congress to pass immigration enforcement legislation, including the construction of a 700-mile wall along our southern border, have been characterized by some as a serious attempt to secure the border and by others as election-year posturing. What it really represents is a failure of leadership.

A central premise of our democratic government established by the founding fathers is that the U.S. citizenry elects representatives to Congress not only to advance their local interests but also to make the difficult decisions which serve the common good of the country.

Sadly, the immigration issue has fallen victim to a political environment which betrays the statesmanship that the founders envisioned.  Instead of applying a bold solution—comprehensive immigration reform–to a complex problem in the best tradition of our democracy, our elected officials have left U.S. citizens with piecemeal enforcement proposals which will only increase human suffering.

The proposed construction of a border wall is a prime example.  While it may give the illusion that the border is secure, in reality it will not prevent migrants from attempting to enter the United States. What it will do is lead them toward more dangerous routes and into the hands of unscrupulous smugglers, resulting in even more exploitation and deaths in the desert.

A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that border crossing deaths have doubled since 1995, about the time the federal government began a series of enforcement initiatives to stop migration around ports-of-entry.  The large majority of these deaths have occurred in the Arizona desert, where, according to the GAO, migrants have been redirected from traditional urban areas like San Diego.  Since 1995, nearly 3,000 persons have died.  No doubt a wall would drive migrants into more remote and dangerous areas and add to the carnage.

A 700-mile wall is also likely to encourage smuggling activity and increase smuggling-related violent crime.  According to the Department of Homeland Security, violence against Border Patrol agents jumped over 100 percent in 2005.  A wall would not force smugglers to pack up and go home but only hike their fees and their attempts to penetrate the border, leading to more violence.

Finally, a border wall would send the wrong signal not only to our peaceful neighbor to the south, Mexico, but also to the world community.  While proponents scoff at this argument as almost anti-American, we should all care about how our nation is viewed internationally.  Building a wall against the outside world is a sign of weakness and fear, not strength and engagement.

Congress has the answer but, as of yet, not the political will to seize it.  The best way to secure our border is to enact comprehensive immigration reform, not to erect a $7 billion wall.  Creating legal avenues for both employment and family migration, combined with a fair legalization program for those here, would ease the pressure on our border.  Migrant workers would enter the country legally through ports of entry and dry up the market for smugglers.

It would allow us to better monitor who is in the country and who is coming in, freeing up law enforcement to pursue those with nefarious intent, including drug traffickers.  A recent survey of Border Patrol agents—those on the front lines—found that the majority agree that the expansion of legal avenues for migrants would make their jobs easier.

With another election upon us, it is natural for our elected officials to look for quick fixes to difficult issues.  As the world’s lone superpower and greatest democracy, we should be able to meet the challenge of illegal immigration without resorting to the least common denominator.