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Our Border Brigades
The nativist right is wrong.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004 12:01 a.m.

Conservatives of a certain ilk are piling all over President Bush's immigration reform, and one of their favorite complaints is that the U.S. has never really tried to "control its borders." One question: Then what is it we've been doing for nearly 20 years now?

At least since the mid-1980s, the federal government has invested steadily more money and effort to stop illegal immigration. It's true that the policy hasn't worked, but not because it hasn't been tried. The crackdown on "illegals" began with the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which these columns opposed but was a favorite of Ed Meese and Alan Simpson, the main restrictionists of that time.

IRCA traded amnesty for illegals currently in the U.S. in return for introducing "employer sanctions." The idea was to harass employers to ensure the nationality of their new hires, under threat of fines or worse if they hired undocumented aliens. This strategy was always a stretch, since most businesses have more urgent things to do than serve as deputies to a federal agency like the INS. A new false-document industry naturally grew, honest employers had no way to sort the real IDs from the fake, and the illegals kept coming in search of work.

As that failure became obvious in the 1990s, a new generation of restrictionists (Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, former "Crossfire" host Pat Buchanan) focused on policing the border. So we gave that a try. The Clinton Administration began operations like "Gatekeeper" and "Hold the Line," which involved planting motion-detection devices along the border, installing remote-control cameras high atop towers and building three-tier walls that went on for miles.

The number of border patrol agents tripled and the most popular corridors for illegals--San Diego and El Paso--were sealed off. The thinking was that the treacherous mountains and deserts in between would serve as natural deterrents. But once again, the border brigades were wrong.

Between 1990 and 2000, illegal immigration rose by 5.5 million people. Circular migration is now less common, human smugglers have increased their fees, and rather than deter newcomers the mountain and desert "funnel effect" has resulted in hundreds of additional deaths from exposure. As one government official told us, "We underestimated the will of these people."

Nor has any of this been done on the cheap. Walter Ewing, a research associate at the Immigration Policy Center, has run the numbers. In a new paper titled, "The Cost of Doing Nothing," he notes that "Since 1993, the amount of money spent each year by the federal government for border enforcement has more than quintupled from $740 million to $3.8 billion." (See the nearby chart.) And though much of that has been spent along the Mexican border--77% of illegal aliens come from Latin America--undocumented immigration "has continued at a rate of about 500,000 per year," Mr. Ewing writes.

This latest failure now has the restrictionist right endorsing ever more extreme measures. Some suggest spending more billions to build a wall across the entire 2,000-mile Mexican-U.S. border. Others want to deploy the U.S. military, as if an already stretched Army doesn't have enough missions. Somehow draining the terror swamp in the Middle East seems a lot more vital to U.S. security than stopping busboys from crossing the Rio Grande.

But there's no guarantee that even this--so insulting to American traditions--would work. Immigrants would find other ways to make it here, whether by overstaying their visas after arriving by airplane, smuggling by boat, or travelling first to Canada before crossing over. Will we build a wall across Ontario too? Or how about mass roundups and deportations? We suppose the feds could do all of these things, assuming the Republican Party could still win elections trying them, but at what financial and psychic cost?

Conservatives pride themselves on realism, so if a policy keeps failing for nearly two decades maybe some new thinking is in order. That is precisely what Mr. Bush is doing. His temporary guest worker proposal would provide a means for new immigrants to enter the country legally as well as a way for the government to keep track of their whereabouts in the interests of homeland security.

The plain truth is that the U.S. depends on these workers more than the nativist wing of the GOP likes to admit. As Mr. Bush said recently, the reality is that our economy continues to create opportunities for low-skilled workers while the pool of Americans willing to fill these jobs continues to shrink.

In 2001, undocumented immigrants filled 1.4 million jobs in the wholesale and retail trades alone, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. More than one million worked in manufacturing and another 1.2 million worked in agriculture. Without these immigrants, employers would be forced to raise wages to attract Americans, perhaps to levels above what productivity and competition allowed. Certain jobs would simply not get done, as is now the case in Europe, as companies automated or moved more jobs overseas. Far from costing the U.S. jobs, immigrants today allow some industries to survive and expand.

Their entry to America is not without its problems and costs. But a sensible policy would tackle those, as Mr. Bush proposes to do, rather than pursue the fantasy that we can or should close our borders like some isolated ancient kingdom.

Available online at: http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110004610

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