Thread: At the border
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- 04-17-2012, 12:04 AM #1
At the border
Pittsburgh Tribune Review
April 15, 2012 Sunday
It's striking how the two sides of the illegal immigration debate have such different perceptions of the same border.
President Obama's side sees a border that's safer than ever, as Janet Napolitano keeps assuring us. The president went to El Paso last May to declare mission accomplished on border security, mocking those who disagreed as wanting to line the border with moats and alligators.
Many immigration hawks, on the other hand, look at the same border and imagine that nothing has changed, that it remains wide open despite billions in spending. This is why people are sometimes attracted to ridiculous proposals like Herman Cain's suggestion that we electrify the border fence.
But neither of these perceptions is accurate.
The border really is better protected than it used to be; the taxpayer resources Congress devoted to the task have not simply been flushed away.
At the same time, the job is incomplete, with large sections of the border requiring continued hardening (not to mention all the nonborder improvements that are still needed).
I got a good look at what is and isn't working during a recent tour of the Arizona border.
First the good news: Almost all the border we visited (between Yuma and Nogales, close to 300 miles) has some kind of fencing. And it works.
At the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, during the peak time six or seven years ago, 3,000 illegal aliens a day would walk, drive and bike across the border and through the protected habitat, cutting roads, killing the tall grass, threatening the Fish and Wildlife Service workers who live in staff housing.
Smugglers routinely abandoned cars in the refuge and part of the area abutting the border was closed to the public for safety reasons.
Then the fence went in and the tide subsided. The grass is growing back. Young female rangers no longer return alone to their quarters after a busy day of tending to wildlife to find illegal aliens in their kitchen stealing food. There's even discussion of reopening the land abutting the border to the public.
It's similar at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where more than two-thirds of the park is closed to the public and two Park Service officers armed with rifles had to accompany us to the border.
That precaution is a consequence of its being named the most dangerous national park after the murder of ranger Kris Eggle by drug cartel gunmen 10 years ago this August. That prompted an increased Border Patrol presence, along with fencing and camera towers, which has reduced illegal crossings significantly and pushed them to a corner of the park, prompting management to consider reopening some closed sections.
Now the bad news.
Less than 2 percent of the whole border has the kind of barrier we really need -- a double-layered fence with a dirt road in between that is dragged smooth so footprints are easily visible.
Even worse is that the fence ends, meaning smugglers just keep going until they get to the end, and cross there.
For instance, the whole border portion of the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge has a tall pedestrian fence -- but on either side, where it abuts land owned by other government agencies, the pedestrian fence abruptly stops and is replaced by vehicle barriers.
Those vehicle barriers are another piece of the bad news. Much of the 700 miles of border fence touted by this administration is just 4 to 6 feet high, designed to stop cars from driving across the border, but nothing else. The fencing is so low that smugglers have simply built ramps to drive over it; the tall pedestrian fencing is the only thing that actually prevents drive-throughs because there's no practical way to drive trucks over a 20-foot fence.
The bad news borderwide is that, as the Government Accountability Office reported last year, only 44 percent of the border with Mexico is under "operational control." That sounds better than it is.
"Border Patrol stated that operational control does not require its agents to be able to detect and apprehend all illegal entries." So it doesn't actually mean much at all. Of that 44 percent, only 15 percent, or a grand total of 129 miles out of about 2,000, is actually "controlled."
We have a long way to go.
Neither the administration's triumphalist tone nor some immigration hawks' despair is a useful guide to policy. Things are better, and can keep getting better if we keep our eye on the ball. But we are nowhere close to the kind of control over our frontiers that is a prerequisite -- but only one of the prerequisites -- for starting a discussion about amnesty for those illegals already here.
America needs neither amnesty nor electrified fences. Let's hope that someday we elect an administration that understands that.
Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. A longer version of this commentary appeared in National Review magazine.
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