Perceptions matter in politics. This is a banal observation, to be sure, but one that hit home for me on a recent tour of the Arizona border. Last month, I went along on a safari for friends and supporters of the Center for Immigration Studies, starting in Yuma and heading east almost to Nogales. A straight line between the two points would measure about 300 miles, though we covered close to 1,000 miles in our various wanderings.
A Border Patrol agent related that, the day after Obama won the presidential election in 2008, two Mexicans came up to the fence and asked the agent, “Can we come in now?”
They couldn’t, of course, despite all they’d heard about Obama’s views on immigration, and his subsequent lack of interest in pushing for amnesty changed his fans’ perception of him.
But traveling in Arizona last month, I was struck by how differently the two sides of the immigration issue perceive the same border, and the effects that has on the policy debate.
Obama’s side sees a border that’s safer than ever, as Janet Napolitano keeps assuring us, Baghdad Bob–style. 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. (Actually, part of the border we visited, over near Yuma, does have moats — or canals anyway. No alligators, though.)
Some of this is undoubtedly cynical, an attempt to shame border hawks and delegitimize their ongoing calls for improvements. But it’s not all guile. I think there are lots of pro-amnesty people who genuinely believe the administration has done everything that could reasonably be expected of it regarding border security, and that it is therefore time to legalize the illegal aliens already here. They look at the hundreds of miles of fencing, the increased Border Patrol staffing, the camera towers, and so on, and they say, “Look, we did what you asked. Now give us our amnesty!”
Many immigration hawks, on the other hand, look at the same border and imagine that nothing substantive has changed, that it remains wide open. Instead of 700 miles of fencing, they see 1,300 miles with no fence. They see videos like this one showing casual contempt for the border fence and despair that the billions spent trying to secure the border have been wasted, that it was all a trick, a con job. With immigration already being the policy area with the biggest gap between public and elite views, this perception of the border further erodes the legitimacy of our governing institutions and attracts people to ridiculous proposals such as Herman Cain’s suggestion that we electrify the fence.
But neither of these perceptions is accurate. The border really is better protected than it used to be; the taxpayer resources Congress has devoted to the task have not simply been flushed away on security theater. At the same time, the job is incomplete, with large sections of the border requiring continued hardening (not to mention all the non-border improvements that are needed, such as universal use of E-Verify, a fully functional check-in/check-out system to ensure that foreign visitors leave when they’re supposed to, etc.)