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.)
I got a look at the good news and the bad news during my trip. First the good news: Almost the entire length of the border between Yuma and Nogales has some kind of fencing, either vehicle barriers or pedestrian fencing. And the fencing 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, and threatening the Fish and Wildlife Service workers who live in staff housing in the remote area. Smugglers routinely abandoned cars in the refuge, and part of the area abutting the border was closed to the public for safety reasons. (In the understated words of the 2006 announcement, “The situation in this zone has reached a point where continued public use of the area is not prudent.”)
Then the fence went in, and the tide subsided. The grass is growing back. There’s only one abandoned car left in the back country to haul out and dispose of. Young female rangers no longer return alone to their quarters after a busy day of tending quail to find illegal aliens in their kitchen stealing food. There’s even discussion of reopening the land abutting the border to the public.
To the west, in the Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector, apprehensions of illegal aliens have dropped 96 percent from the 2005 peak (compared with a 73 percent drop along the whole southwest border taken together). Apprehensions aren’t a foolproof yardstick for measuring the actual volume of illegal crossings, but that kind of drop means something’s happening. Much of the decline in crossings is due to the weak U.S. economy, of course, and perhaps also to a stronger economy and falling birth rates in Mexico, plus fear of transiting the violent northern part of the country, which is wracked by drug wars. But the disproportionate drop in Yuma suggests something else. A large factor is Operation Streamline, started under the Bush administration, which actually prosecutes every single illegal alien caught sneaking in, incarcerates him for a week or two, and only then sends them back, now with a criminal record and a sense that we’re serious about this border business.
It’s much the same story 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 in America, an understandable designation considering that park ranger Kris Eggle was murdered there ten years ago this August by cartel gunmen. That prompted significantly increased presence of Border Patrol and Park Service police, along with fencing and camera towers, which have reduced illegal crossings significantly and pushed them to a corner of the park, prompting management to consider reopening some closed sections to the public.
Now the bad news. Pedestrian fences, even at 18 or 20 feet, can be climbed over by resourceful young people. But that’s inevitable and not really a downside — it still slows people down, a lot, and makes escape back into Mexico to avoid arrest very difficult. But that’s why double-layered fencing is needed, with a dirt road in between that is dragged smooth so footprints are easily visible. Unfortunately, less than 2 percent of the border has such a barrier, even though that’s what Congress thought it was voting for in the Secure Fence Act of 2006.
Even worse is that the fence ends. Unsurprisingly, smugglers just keep going till they get to the end of the fence, and cross there. For instance, the whole border portion of the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge has a 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.
These barriers are another piece of the bad news. Much of the 700 miles of border fence touted by this administration is just four to six feet high, designed to stop cars from driving straight across the border, but little else. Your grandma could get over or under them; heck, I have gone over and under them. (See examples from the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation and Organ Pipe.) The fencing is so low that smugglers have simply built ramps to drive over it; only the fencing designed for pedestrians actually prevents drive-throughs, because there’s no practical way to drive trucks over a 20-foot fence.
Another problem is fickle political attention. The politicians in Washington seem to think that a surge in border spending and personnel is enough to stop illegal crossings — to “solve” the problem — after which the resources can simply be moved to another purpose. The president’s FY 2012 budget, for instance, calls for tens of millions of dollars in cuts to border-security programs, including fencing, technology, and air operations. On a small scale we saw this same impulse at the Buenos Aires Refuge; the National Guardsmen who had been stationed there as spotters were withdrawn at the beginning of last month, and lo and behold, illegal crossings started to increase. This impulse to declare the border “solved” is powerful, both as a pretext for amnesty and as an opportunity to direct public funds to other, more politically profitable uses.
And a gaping hole in the border is the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation. Its border with Mexico is marked only by vehicle barriers, and a large number of the residents are in cahoots with the smugglers. The tribal authorities are cool to the Border Patrol and have not allowed any camera towers on their land. Until Congress compels more extensive cooperation with border enforcement, this jurisdiction, nearly the size of Connecticut, will remain a prime target for smugglers.
The bad news border-wide is that, as the Government Accountability Office reported last year, only 44 percent of the border with Mexico is under “operational control.” What is the meaning of this bureaucratese? As defined by the Border Patrol, the designation “does not require its agents to be able to detect and apprehend all illegal entries.” Only 15 percent of the area under “operational control,” or a grand total of 129 miles out of about 2,000, is fully 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. 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. At the same time, things have gotten better, and can continue to get better, with the steady application of existing tools and normal law-enforcement methods.
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.