National Immigration Forum

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Border Security Mania

April 29, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

National Guard on Border

At the end of March, there was a drive-by shooting in the District of Columbia just a few miles from the White House.  Four people were killed.  Five more wounded.

No one called for the deployment of the National Guard.

At about the same time, a rancher in southern Arizona was murdered by someone whose tracks led to Mexico.  The murder sparked outrage against the Federal Government, and there have been calls to beef up border security, several hearings in Congress, and a deluge of requests for the National Guard.  The murder galvanized support for the new Arizona law that may well result in a significant portion of Arizona's population being regularly stopped to show their papers to prove they are not in the country illegally.

Moreover, Arizona's two Republican Senators released a "10 point plan" that leads off with a call for deployment of the National Guard:

"Immediately deploy 3,000 National Guard Troops along the Arizona/Mexico border, … which shall remain in place until the Governor of Arizona certifies … that the Federal Government has achieved operational control of the border.  Permanently add 3,000 Custom and Border Protection Agents to the Arizona/Mexico border by 2015."

Let's step back for a minute.

The murder was a terrible thing.  But even if 50,000 more Border Patrol agents are deployed and 50,000 National Guard are sent to the border, they are not going to be able to stop every crime from happening. Just like anywhere else in the country, the police (or in this case Border Patrol) cannot be everywhere at once. 

In other communities around the country, people get this.  When it comes to the border, however, every incident is an opportunity for politicians to say the border is not "secure" and we must secure it before we even consider fixing our broken immigration system.  The goalposts keep moving back, and there will always be incidents to give politicians excuses to move the goalposts back further.  That's especially true of politicians who would rather avoid the hard work of reforming our immigration system.

In 2007, conservatives insisted on certain "benchmarks" being met in border enforcement before a legalization program could be implemented.  These were written into the compromise immigration reform legislation at the time. 

What were they?

  • 18,000 Border Patrol agents and staff support.  There are now more than 20,000 Border Patrol agents.  This does not include thousands of agents from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and other agencies.  Some of these federal agents are deployed at ports of entry, some are assisting in the fight against drug cartels.

  • 570 miles of vehicle and pedestrian fencing, 70 ground-based radar and camera towers, and 4 unmanned aerial vehicles.  There are now nearly 645 miles of vehicle and pedestrian barriers, covering most of the distance between the Pacific Ocean and the Rio Grande River.  Towers have fallen out of favor since 2007, but there are now 28 of them supplemented by 41 mobile surveillance systems with radar and cameras, plus another 16 remote video surveillance systems.  There are 5 unmanned aerial drones.

  • Resources to remove anyone crossing the southern border, and detention space for 27,500.  The practice of apprehending someone, booking them, and releasing them until their future court date (so-called "catch and release") was ended years ago.  Persons apprehended on the border are removed or held in detention.  There are now spaces for 33,400 detainees.

The benchmarks have been more than met, especially regarding agents deployed.

OK, so maybe crime has gotten completely out of control since the 2007 benchmarks were set and we do need new benchmarks—another 3,000 Border Patrol agents; another 3,000 National Guard, etc.

Let's take a look.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the violent crime rate in Arizona (as of 2008, the latest statistics available) has been declining since it peaked in 1993.  It is now lower than it has been since the early 1970s.  The property crime rate has also declined since it peaked in 1995.  It hasn't been this low since the mid-1960s.  The city with the highest violent crime rate in Arizona, Tucson, ranks 38th nationally (behind Wichita, Kansas).  The decline in crime has coincided with a steep rise in Arizona's undocumented population.

So why is there a sense that the border is out of control, that crime is out of control, and that draconian anti-immigrant measures are necessary to bring order back to the state?

Timothy Egan takes a stab at explaining what's going on in this blog post at the New York Times

"…this place is a warning of what a state can look like when it’s run by talk-radio demagogues and their television cohorts."

The same legislature that passed SB 1070 passed a "birther" bill, requiring anyone who wants to run for political office to show their birth certificate, and made it legal for residents to carry concealed weapons—without a permit. 

As the state prepares to spend millions in legal fees defending its new anti-immigrant law,

"Its state parks are orphans, left to volunteers. Its university system is being slashed and picked to death. They even considered a plan to sell the House and Senate buildings."

Another angle is to look at cost and benefit tradeoffs.  As I mentioned, people in communities around the country understand that the police can't be everywhere at once.  Yet, people don't call for officers to be deployed on every street corner.  There is a tradeoff.  Communities must balance their budgets.  They pick priorities, and spend on initiatives that will be most effective in keeping people safe.  To pay for additional security, taxes must go up.  At the federal level, this is not the case.  Politicians can demand—and deploy—millions of dollars of additional resources in a quest for votes.  There is no need to raise taxes.  Money will be borrowed, and the cost will be charged to future taxpayers, who don't currently vote.

The border is fodder for politicians who are looking for votes from loud and angry people who do not like the changes they see around them, and who listen to talk show hosts whose ratings depend on how well they divide Americans against each other.  We will never have a secure border as long as we have politicians who seek political points with calls for "securing the border" while avoiding the hard work of reforming our immigration system. 

Image by Flickr user Jim Greenhill.

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