Border Wall: Good Idea?

In a last-minute action just before leaving to campaign for the upcoming midterm elections, the Senate passed the Secure Fence Act, which authorizes 700 new miles of fence on the U.S.-Mexico border. The controversial fence, which if built in its entirety would divide approximately one third of the southern border, is a topic of conversation in local and national political campaigns. The House had already approved the bill, and President Bush said Wednesday he would sign it.

Pro-immigration border activists are calling the measure an outrage, a political stunt, a gimmick that has everything to do with the congressional elections drawing near, while anti-immigration groups counter that the fence is a positive first step to securing the porous southern border. Environmentalists decry the potential hazards of the fence, while Mexico's outgoing President Vicente Fox condemns it as "shameful."

Border expert David Shirk is an author, political science professor at the University of San Diego and director of the Trans-Border Institute, which was created in 1994 to promote border-related scholarship. NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno talked with Shirk about the proposed border fence. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Do you believe the Secure Fence Act is a viable legislative solution to the illegal-immigration problem?

David Shirk: Well, what is viable in the legislature is always not equally viable in reality. As it stands, the Secure Fence Act would provide additional fencing for only 700 miles, which accounts for about a third of the 2,000-mile border. While Congress has also provided funds for a high-tech system of cameras, sensors, aerial drones, radar and satellites, this strategy doesn't address other important aspects of undocumented immigration. About a third of unauthorized residents in this country don't sneak across the border; they simply overstay their visas. In addition, more migrants who do cross at the border are coming in with false papers, by boat or through underground tunnels like the one found recently at San Ysidro [south of San Diego.]. If not accompanied by other control measures that focus on employers, for example, the current initiative will simply redirect more of the flow to these other channels.

Some see the fence as more of a political stunt than a legitimate political measure. Do you agree or disagree?

Politically, more fencing sounds good to an electorate that is rightfully frustrated by more than a decade of failed immigration policies. Republicans understood very well that any Democrat who voted against this measure would look soft on immigration in the November elections, so it was a clever political strategy. Bill Clinton used the same strategy to look tough on immigration back in the early 1990s, and ever since then the government has been ramping up border enforcement with little success in stopping undocumented immigration.

Indeed, the presence of over 11 million unauthorized residents in the United States is a significant indictment of our border-focused immigration-control efforts. Meanwhile, the government has essentially abandoned any real effort at immigration enforcement in the interior of the country, where the jobs are. Instead, the government has relied on self-reporting by employers, who have neither the capability nor the inclination to identify and report undocumented immigrants. So, in many ways, calling for fencing provides a political smoke screen for the government's inaction at home.

There is some debate now over whether there will actually be 700 miles of fence constructed. Rep. Duncan Hunter, who cosponsored the bill, insists there is a "mandate" from Congress to build the entire 700 miles and nothing less. Do you think this fence will ever be built at its complete length of 700 miles?

Earlier this year, Congress authorized 370 miles of additional fencing but then nixed the funds to pay for it. The same thing could easily happen again. The costs involved here are simply enormous, considering how disappointing the results have been. For the last four years, we've spent tens of billions of dollars annually on homeland security, while the flow of undocumented immigration has continued at very high levels. For the current initiative there is a provision of about $1.2 billion as part of a $21.3 billion border security package for hiring more border patrol officers and new high-tech gadgets. Depending on what estimates you read, the total cost of building the fence could be between $2.1 and $7 billion. It is a wonder why we don't cut out the bureaucrats and government contractors and simply pay migrants not to come here.

Do these types of fences decrease smuggling?

No, they actually increase smuggling. The harder you make it for undocumented immigrants to cross the border on their own accord, the more they have to rely on professional smugglers and organized criminals who can provide them with the false papers they need to enter the country. Essentially, as with drug trafficking, we've created a very profitable black market for migrant smugglers. As a result, there are fairly clear indications that we've moved from individual and "mom and pop" migrant smuggling operations to more sophisticated, costly and potentially dangerous organized-crime syndicates.

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What's wrong with trying to keep more illegal immigrants from coming across the border? Doesn't having a thick, high fence keep out more illegal immigrants than not having a fence?

Additional border enforcement and fencing has definitely had some important effects over the last decade, just not the intended one of reducing undocumented migration. Because of new fencing and manpower at the border, undocumented migrant flows have been rerouted overland through dangerous desert and mountain areas, underground through sophisticated tunnel systems, and over seas along our coasts. The deterrent affect is not to stop but to reroute flows to other places and means of entry. Indeed, there has been a proliferation of criminal smuggling networks, document fraud and visa overstays—the last of these accounting for as much as a third of all unauthorized immigration.

Tragically, from a humanitarian perspective, we have also seen far too many migrants exposed to greater physical risks to cross the border. Thousands on average, more than one migrant a day, have died over the last decade. Numbers of deaths jumped from double to triple digits soon after we started putting in fencing in major metropolitan areas in the early 1990s.

Won't there always be illegal immigration as long as Mexico¹s economy suffers?

Ultimately, the real challenge is to promote economic development and poverty reduction in Mexico. This is a long-term issue, and most of the burden falls on Mexico, but it would happen much faster if the United States and Canada offered to help. On the one hand, Mexico will need to enact far-reaching reforms in its domestic economic policy, promote education, deregulate some public-sector enterprises, regulate its monopolies and provide better infrastructure—particularly in Mexico's underdeveloped South. On the other hand, explicitly addressing Mexico's development as part of the NAFTA equation—either through general development programs or by working to promote development in specific migrant-sending communities—could help move toward a more equitable and integrated partnership between Canada, Mexico and the United States.

But promoting economic development in Mexico, won't stop undocumented immigration overnight. And it won't address the problem that 11 million people are already here without legal status. This is why the president and the Senate have been trying to find a legal option, like a temporary guest-worker program, to bring migrants who are already here out of the shadows. Many people resist this idea because they see it as rewarding criminal behavior with amnesty. But, in fact, as currently envisioned a guest-worker initiative would actually require undocumented immigrants to either return home or pay a fine in order to obtain legal status. More importantly, I think, it is important to recognize that virtually all crimes, except murder, have a statute of limitations—essentially an amnesty—after which they are not punished. In many cases, the statute of limitation passes after just a few years. So America needs to ask itself what should be the statute of limitations for illegal entry to find work in the United States.

What are some of the environmental concerns about the fence?

The major environmental concern is that the construction of the fencing will contribute to ecological degradation in the already endangered and fragile desert ecosystems and riversheds of the border region. Environmental organizations have had their hands tied because the Department of Homeland Security has had free range to prioritize border security over the environment, and there are virtually no legal channels to challenge the impacts of its projects along the border. Here in San Diego, the DHS is essentially leveling a significant portion of the natural environment in order to complete 14 miles of fencing.

Symbolically, what does this fence represent to you?

For me, the fence symbolizes the past. From the Mongols to the cold war, people have tried to contain their fears and enemies with walls. At the end of the last century, we thought all the walls were going to come down. Indeed, building walls and fortifying borders in the era of globalization and economic integration holds inherent contradictions and promises little in the way of effectiveness. Walls may be useful for blocking large, land-based armies, but are probably useless for combating terrorism. We're in a new era with new problems, but we keep coming up with old solutions.

Border Wall: Good Idea? | News