The Border between Fear and Security

Today’s bill signing turns its back on a comprehensive solution that could protect our security, economy, and values.

The conservative chorus of “Be All Ye Fearful” will add a verse today, one rooted in largely paranoid propaganda regarding the national security challenge on our southern border—one for which conservatives provide nothing but symbolic non-solutions.

The melody of this latest verse is the Secure Fence Act of 2006. Although it passed Congress in September, a delay in its transmission to the White House has left it, not coincidentally, on President Bush’s agenda for the final days before the mid-term elections.

The Act mandates the costly construction of 700 miles of barriers along the more than 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexico border, and is the key immigration “accomplishment” of the 109th Congress. It is also the latest example of the border-enforcement-only approach to managing immigration that has both attempted to narrow the complex issue of immigration reform to a discreet subset of issues and failed to effectively address even those limited issues.

From 1990 to 2005, for example, the United States tripled the size of its Border Patrol. During that period, the undocumented population in the United States more than doubled. The death rate on the U.S.-Mexico border tripled. And per apprehension costs increased to $1700 per arrest in 2002, up from $300 per arrest a decade earlier.

Perhaps because of this futility and the siren call of fear-based politics, immigration restrictionists have sought to tie their efforts to national security. The latest example of this effort is last week’s partisan report by the majority staff of House of Representatives Homeland Security Investigations Subcommittee—A Line in the Sand: Confronting the Threat at the Southwest Border. Issued well after the 109th Congress shut down for business—despite immigration reform and border security having been on the Congressional agenda for more than a year—the report’s timing is deeply suspect.

Rolled out complete with alarmist stories on FOX News and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, the report paints a frightening picture of the threat from Mexican-based narco-traffickers. The report intones ominously that these traffickers pose a threat to the United States not so much from the massive drug flows they control and the related domestic demand that pumps billions of dollars into their pockets, but rather from the speculative threat that such traffickers could facilitate the entry of terrorists into the United States.

Although the specter of terrorists attempting to enter the United States across our southern border exists, it is not a primary national security threat faced by our country, nor is it the primary challenge posed at our southern border. But most importantly, it is not one that a 700-mile fence or increased border enforcement alone will meaningfully mitigate.

When asked how best to improve U.S. security at our international borders and points of entry, 70 percent of an ideologically-diverse group of counter-terrorism experts surveyed by the Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy magazine called for “improv[ing] port and cargo security.” Only six percent opted for building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. If one looks beyond the perceived short-term political imperative that drove enactment of the Secure Fence Act and publication of A Line in the Sand, it becomes clear that protecting the United States requires a multifaceted approach.

A linchpin to making the United States safer in this context is comprehensive immigration reform—an approach torpedoed by conservatives in the 109th Congress. A safer, modern immigration system must combine border and workplace enforcement with mechanisms to regulate future flows of immigrants into our country and allow the 12 million undocumented already here to emerge from the shadows.

Comprehensive reform will make America safer by allowing us to focus resources on the fraction of foreigners who may seek to enter the United States—be it from the North, South, East, or West—with evil intentions. It will give us an opportunity to perform terrorism and criminal background checks on the undocumented who wish to seek to earn the right to stay in the United States. It will also allow us to spend precious resources on the kinds of port and cargo security improvements prioritized by counter terrorism experts, and not on expensive and ineffective barriers.

Today, with a restrictionist border-enforcement-only approach, we are making a futile attempt at using Border Patrol agents and physical barriers to regulate our labor market. This massive misapplication of resources fails to make us safer and will not be remedied through appeals to fear, symbolism, or by throwing good money after bad.

It is time for a new tune—one that takes on the hard work of making Americans safer, rather than more fearful. Such a comprehensive solution, that protects our security, economy, and values does indeed exist. Unfortunately, with the president’s signature today, we will be led in another chorus of fear, rather toward a reality-based solution.

To read more about solutions from the Center for American Progress, see:

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Dan Restrepo

Senior Fellow