... inion1.txt

Securing the border isn't optional - Sunday, May 22, 2005

SUMMARY: It's pretty hard to meaningfully reform immigration controls without meaningful controls to start from.

Luis Posada Carriles is a suspected terrorist accused of bombing a Cuban airliner and orchestrating a series of bombings in Cuba. He's well-known by the U.S. government, and his name shows up on terrorist watch lists. Several weeks ago, he crossed illegally from Mexico into the United States. When Cuba and Venezuela, where he is wanted, sought help in capturing him, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at first disputed his presence in the country. Once he began granting newspaper interviews and holding press conferences, however, authorities finally arrested him.

According to press accounts, Posada had been stopped by a border agent, but was cleared for entry after explaining he'd forgotten his documents.

That's pretty lame. But it's a perfect illustration of the madness that passes for control of America's southern border.

In this case, the bad guy happens to be anti-Cuban, rather than anti-American - not that it should matter. It wouldn't have been any harder for an anti-American terrorist to cross from Mexico to the United States.

Amid near-fixation over security in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the government continues to display a perplexing disinterest in securing the nation's border with Mexico. Not that security is the only concern. Huge economic and social ramifications also follow the flood of people who illegally immigrate to the United States. The never-ending stream of low-wage illegal workers makes it harder for citizens and legal immigrants to command higher pay. Companies that hire illegal workers create unfair competition for companies that play by the rules. And the 11 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States live a kind of shadow existence with implications for schools, social services and civic life, as well as the economy.

It is, of course, illegal for foreign citizens to traipse into the United States. That's why they're called illegal immigrants. Far from meaningfully combating the problem of illegal immigration, however, the government fiddles. Sure, Homeland Security patrols the border, but without pretext of doing so effectively.

The government has two responsibilities here: control of immigration and control of entry. They are separate, related responsibilities. We have laws on the books that specify the official policies for both. The government is supposed to screen all of the people who enter and limit the number of people who are allowed to immigrate.

Laws aside, the government actually has a policy, tacitly endorsed by the political leadership, to allow unlimited unscreened entry into the country through unofficial points of entry.

When a group of citizens staged a border vigil earlier this spring, Homeland Security treated them as the outlaws. The Washington Times recently reported that Border Patrol officials subsequently directed agents to ease up on arrests of illegal immigrants in the part of Arizona where those citizens stood watch, lest their efforts appear successful.

Meanwhile, just last week, the Bush administration announced it's freeing up $1 billion through September alone to pay hospitals and doctors to provide health care for illegal immigrants. There's also a big debate raging in several states over the practice of granting illegal immigrants driving licenses. Even after Congress passed a new law creating more stringent, uniform standards for driver's licenses to curb ID abuses, some states want to preserve the ability to license illegal immigrants. The president of Mexico recently complained that the United States is unfairly making it hard for illegal immigrants to get drivers' licenses.

Ironically, the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month passed an extraordinary bill intended to combat criminal gangs. The bill turns many local crimes into federal crimes and imposes stiff minimum sentence requirements for people convicted of gang-related crimes. This is the kind of overreaching legislation we get from people freaking out over crime and thinking there's more the federal government should do to make people secure. We make the connection to border control and immigration issues because the government's first obligation in securing the country is to secure the borders and regulate who enters our country. Nothing else can compensate from a failure to attend to that first responsibility first.

Moving to the fore, now, is legislation proposed by Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz. Billed as immigration reform, their bill does include measures aimed at better regulating immigration. But it also includes an incongruous provision allowing people who enter the United States illegally to "earn" visas allowing them to stay. In other words, more mixed messages.

If you've entered the country illegally, you're a criminal. It's that simple. Someone whose first act on American soil is to break the law shouldn't be welcomed with a program allowing them to gain legitimacy. Besides, the entire time someone is "earning" a backdoor visa (by taking a job, learning English, paying taxes), he continues to break the law. We should point out, too, that it's also illegal to hire illegal immigrants, not that you'd notice amid all the arguments about the valuable role illegal immigrants play in the economy of many states. Ironically, the more criminals we welcome, the greater the political and economic pressure to limit the number of law-abiding immigrants who play by the rules and apply for entry.

America is a nation of immigrants. We're not against immigration, and government policy shouldn't discourage it either. But it's a fundamental right of all sovereign nations to regulate immigration and decide who gets to enter the country - for the purpose, among others, of safeguarding citizens. We fail to exercise that right at our peril.