Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Border Fence No Answer

You may have seen Peter Schrag's opinion piece in The Dallas Morning News on Sunday, August 1, 2010.  You don't have to agree with him on all points to recognize he makes good sense about his main point:   the answer for our borders will not be discovered in building a fence.  See if you agree.

Why good fences make bad policy

Even before 2007, when the last attempt at comprehensive immigration reform was killed in the Senate, immigration restrictionists made "sealing" the U.S.-Mexican border a precondition for supporting legalization of the more than 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States. For a lot of Americans, this idea has been orthodoxy ever since.

Now, with immigration reform again on the table, President Barack Obama has duly taken up the call for a stronger border. In his speech on immigration last month, he lamented the "porous" and "broken" state of U.S. borders, and he described controlling them as an "obligation" and a "responsibility," arguing that the nation has "more boots on the ground near the Southwest border than at any time in our history."

More than 670 miles of border fences, walls, bollards and spikes that Congress decreed in 2006 at an estimated cost of $4 billion (plus future maintenance) are almost completed. The Border Patrol, which was increased from 9,000 agents in 2001 to 20,000 in 2009, costs an estimated $4 billion annually.

Throw in the cost of occasional deployments of the National Guard, as Obama has ordered again; the cost of electronic sensors, surveillance aircraft, training of local police; the cost of detaining, incarcerating and deporting illegal immigrants; and the countless other expenses associated with border security, and the bill runs us nearly $10 billion a year.

But will more boots really seal the border? Immigration reform has a long history of unintended consequences: More than two decades of increased enforcement since the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, or IRCA, has done little to reduce the number of illegal immigrants. In fact, it seems to have increased their numbers. Meanwhile, the question of jobs, which are the true driver of legal and illegal immigration, has been largely neglected.

Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey pointed out nearly a decade ago that measures to secure the border seemed to produce almost the opposite of what was intended. By making the northward crossing more dangerous and expensive, Massey and co-authors Jorge Durand and Nolan J. Malone wrote in 2002, the border buildup discouraged seasonal laborers from going back to Mexico when they were not working.

With increasing border enforcement, workers who used to shuttle between jobs in California or Texas and home in Zacatecas or Michoacan simply began to stay put and sent for their families, becoming permanent, if sometimes reluctant, residents. According to Massey, post-IRCA border enforcement may have increased the size of the permanent Mexican population in the United States by a factor of nearly four.

More unintended consequences: The anti-immigrant backlash that sparked Arizona's string of anti-illegal-immigration legislation was produced in large part by tighter border controls in Texas and California. That enforcement squeezed the smuggling of immigrants and drugs into Arizona's Sonoran Desert and mountains.

As noted by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, among many others, the element missing from this picture is that immigration, both legal and illegal, is driven more by the economy than it is restrained by border enforcement.

That's not all that different from the immigration patterns of the past century and a half, when immigration levels were almost invariably trailing indicators of the U.S. economy and its sometimes severe worker shortages. One hundred fifty years ago, after the dislocations and slaughter of the Civil War, some states even sent agents to Europe to recruit workers. When times were good, we beckoned to immigrants; when they were bad, we tried to expel them.

"We wanted workers," says Philip Martin, an immigration economist in California, "but we got people."

Americans have historically been ambivalent about new arrivals. Ever since colonial days, immigration and immigration restriction have been tightly wound around each other like a double helix. In the same polls in which Americans express support for Arizona's immigration legislation, they also say that by paying fines and back taxes (which most already pay) immigrants should have the right to be legalized.

Some places accept, even welcome, illegal immigrants. Some try to expel them. My state of California grants illegal immigrants relatively low in-state college tuition but denies them driver's licenses.

In the past three years, the U.S. population of illegal immigrants has declined, perhaps by as much as 10 percent, from about 12 million to 11 million. Anti-immigration groups such as the Center for Immigration Studies credit tougher border and workplace enforcement for much of that decline. But some, if not most, has almost certainly been driven by the recession, beginning in the construction industry and continuing in many other sectors that employ large numbers of immigrants. During those three years, more immigrants returned to Mexico than came north.

None of this means giving up on border control, especially if it's focused on drugs and other criminal activities. But if the objective is to reduce the attraction of U.S. jobs for undocumented workers – about a third to half of whom, in any case, have overstayed their visas, not crossed the border illegally – it requires different strategies.

Click here to read the entire essay.


Anonymous said...

You base your blog on a far left professor, and consequently one question's it validity. The comments posted are ripe with half truths and totally lacking in objectivity. For example,The number of illegals is closer to 20 million. The rate of illegal crossings has declined somewhat, but there has been no massive exdous of illegals as the number residing in the U.S. continues to increase.
In fact border control has not been able to cope with the human flood northward. More restrictive efforts, such as fencing and electronic surveillance as well as a substantial increase in Border Patrol agents are needed to contain the flood.

The social and financial costs of illegal immigration to U.S. citizens is staggering.

Larry James said...

Actually, I quoted from The Dallas Morning News, no liberal rag by any means. Until the U S comes up with a reasonable plan to register people coming into the country and allowing for an orderly process of coming and going, we will continue to struggle with this problem. Ironically, all of the rhetoric about "first sealing the border" suggests exactly the wrong first step. The first step is comprehensive reform, including a plan for legitimate coming and going. Then the number of those who violate the rules will drop to a level that border security can well manage.

Anonymous said...

The first step in comprehensive immigration reform should be deportation Concurrent with this, the border should be sealed. Your argument is a canard. You don't change the law because it is broken, you enforce it.

Larry James said...

Anon 7 pm, I beg to differ. The border can't be controlled because the flow in is too great to handle. Faulty civil laws should be changed. Once the flow is controlled administratively, the border can be managed. Your "law and order" argument works great for demagogues, but not in reality for folks who really want order.

Anonymous said...

OK. I'm game. What does this mean, Larry: Once the flow is controlled administratively,...."

Isn't the speed limit controlled administratively? I drive faster than posted speed every day.

By the way, logically the phrase "first step is a comprehensive reform" is simply absurd. If comprehensive reform were implemented first, there won't be a second step, rendering the "first step" non existent.

I think you misunderstand what reform is. It is not words on a piece of paper. It is not things we are planning to do. It is change made (past tense). A thing is reformed when it is different now than it was before. So calling for reform necessarily involved doing things to create a future possiblity and unless the goal is incredibly simple, a sequential plan is in order. (i.e., "First, close the border.")

I would be happy if we could simply stem the tide and keep working at it. Stemming the tide could be second or third, with increasing fines on employers of illegals first and empower local police to investigate immigration status during any lawful traffic stop second.

I know you'll be tempted to address my items sequentially. Instead, why don't you address all of them comprehensively. This should save us all some time.

Larry James said...

Please see my post on July 14, 2010--esp point 1. If people knew they could register to come into the US or register for a document tht allowed travel back and forth, the need for smuggling people into the country would end. This reduced load on ICE would allow the border to be controlled. Most folks who want to secure the border first don't have any appetite for this as a solution. I'm wondering why?