Bush's Border Folly

Conservative Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said that President Bush finally "got it" when he pledged in his nationally televised address to dump thousands of National Guard troops on the border to help border agents halt the tide of illegal immigrants.

Sessions was ecstatic for a good reason. Bush gave conservatives what they demand from him, and that's tough, no-nonsense reassurance that he hasn't totally surrendered to immigration rights proponents who want a balanced, humane immigration reform law.

Bush latched onto the troops-on-the-border issue in part to show that he can get at least one policy initiative through Congress, and in greater part to appease conservatives who are furious at him for backing a too-soft immigration reform bill. But even if the troop deployment is only a temporary measure, as Bush says, to assist beleaguered, overworked, and short handed border patrol agents better do their job, and presuming that the feds can find the money to pay for the troops,  it still won't do much to stem the tide of illegal immigrants entering the country.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, nearly three-quarter million illegal immigrants enter the country each year. That number hasn't changed in the past decade. During those years, the Clinton and Bush administrations spent more to arrest, detain and deport illegal immigrants. The increased spending also included the construction of bigger and stronger border fences along more than 100 miles of the border in California Arizona and Texas.

The fences and the added agents didn't stop the thousands of desperate foreign workers from south of the border from getting in. And it certainly didn't stop smugglers, and labor contractors from bringing them in. They found and dug unguarded crossing points, trails, roads, and tunnels to enter. It would take thousands of National Guard troops to fill up the 700-mile stretch of mostly open land that illegal immigrants can enter the country through. The troops would have to be deployed on the border for more than a few months to have any real impact on immigration control. Neither Bush nor Congress has said where the money is going to come from to maintain a prolonged troop presence there.

But even if the Bush and Congress bankroll guard troops for months on the border, the number of illegal immigrants that get into the country still wouldn't appreciably drop. That's because a sizeable percent of the estimate 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. didn't trek across the Mexican border. They came in on planes and on boats as tourists with student and work visas. They came from Asia, Africa, and Caribbean countries, Canada, Ireland, and Eastern Europe. When their visas expired they simply stayed.

An impregnable brick and mortar border wall, space age sensors, and more border agents, and National Guard troops wouldn't have stopped the 19 hijackers that rammed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon September 11 from getting into the country. They were all here with legitimate visas, and in a slap at Republicans that say tough border security would stop terrorists from getting in, 13 of them did not break the law by overstaying. Their visas hadn't expired.

The millions of others that enter the U.S. legally or illegally come to work and escape poverty in their countries. Businesses, trade and manufacturing associations put the welcome mat out for them. They openly boast that they will continue to hire undocumented workers. They also make veiled threats that their industries, indeed the economy, would collapse if they didn't hire them.

Despite the recent showy raids Homeland Security and INS made on a few employers, mostly for political and public consumption, there is still no evidence that federal officials will mount a massive crackdown on employers that hire illegal immigrants. The figures point in the opposite direction. In 2004, a grand total of three employers were sanctioned for hiring illegals. That was a steep plunge from five years earlier when the feds served "intent to fine" notices on more than 400 employers for hiring undocumented workers. Federal officials, in defense, say that they have shifted their focus from fines and raids to criminal prosecutions.

Criminal prosecutions, however, haven't done much to stop the flow either. The issue is still jobs and poverty. Mexican President Vicente Fox has taken much heat for not doing more to improve the economy in Mexico to provide more jobs. In response, he publicly pledged that government and industry in Mexico would create more than a million jobs in the next few years.

But with Mexico's continued high population growth that would be a bare blip on the country's employment chart. The U.S. Agency for International Development would have to radically increase the amount of investment it pumps into the country in the next five years to create the millions of new jobs that would keep more workers in the country. The agency has given no public indication that it will spend those added billions.

Bush's tough talk on border security might cool some of the anger of conservatives, but it's a fool's paradise measure that won't put a dent in the illegal immigrant problem. And Congress shouldn't con itself into thinking that it will.  


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