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Border Insecurity
The New York Times
March 4, 2008

From San Diego on the Pacific to Brownsville on the Rio Grande, a steel curtain is descending across the continent. Behind it lies a nation so confused and conflicted by its immigration problems that it has decided to wall itself off and wait for things to fix themselves. This country once was a confident global magnet for an invigorating flow of immigrant workers and citizens-to-be. Now it is just hunkering.

The evidence of this neurosis is visible at the border with Mexico, where the Department of Homeland Security has been rushing to reinforce an ineffective system of fencing and sensors, trucks and boots on the ground. The mission, imposed upon it by Congress after a wearying stalemate on immigration reform, is a mandate to do the impossible, at record speed and at record expense.

This commitment to enforcement alone, without fixing legal immigration, was always Plan B. Even President Bush, the master of the botched federal initiative, predicted it would fail. He is looking unusually prescient.

In Arizona, a 28-mile pilot project to build a "virtual fence" of sensors and cameras has fallen short of expectations. The problem, according to the Government Accountability Office, was too much haste and too little consultation with the Border Patrol. The main contractor, Boeing, rushed into the project with the wrong software. Its cameras couldn't focus on targets, and systems were confounded by innocuous things like rain. The Bush administration has confused things further by saying the system is working as planned but won't be expanded.

That is not necessarily good news along remote border areas in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, where there is a lot of desert and mountains and where the alternative — pouring billions into building a real fence is viewed as simply insane. No amount of fencing would seriously deter illegal crossers, border-town officials insist, and the effort actually makes things worse: You have to build roads to build the fence, and the new roads connect with old ones and vastly increase their usefulness to smugglers in cars and trucks. Mayor Ray Borane of Douglas, Ariz., said that people on the Mexican side have cut through his section of the fence with torches, welding on doors with their own locks, going in and out at will. "They cut holes in the thing like you wouldn't believe," he said.

In Texas, the fence is a dotted line, blocking some places but not others. It cuts through the University of Texas at Brownsville and blocks the migration of wildlife by bifurcating valuable nature preserves in which the country has already made a heavy investment. At the same time, it seems at pains not to disrupt things that really matter, like golf, stopping short of the River Bend country club and a luxury gated community owned by Ray L. Hunt, a Dallas oil billionaire.

Let's agree that any country needs to control its borders and ports, and that this one has done too little on that front. But that worthy goal founders when the overall strategy boils down to simplistic components — bits of fencing and technological cure-alls — rather than a comprehensive solution that also attacks the reasons people cross illegally. Despite what critics of "amnesty" say, immigration reform has never been a choice between legalization and enforcement, because legalization is enforcement. Only by bringing people onto the books and being realistic about the supply of visas, letting people in through ports of entry, instead of chasing them across the desert, will the country restore sanity and order to this broken system.

The view from Mayor Borane's part of the world, shared by dozens of border mayors and sheriffs and governors like Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Bill Richardson of New Mexico, is that nothing short of a phalanx of federal agents standing shoulder-to-shoulder for 2,000 miles would shut the border the way the hard-liners on talk radio want it shut. The sensible solution is to bring the visa supply in line with reality, let workers and family members through more easily and give the Border Patrol the resources — virtual and otherwise — to catch drug smugglers and other bad people.

As for the fence, we like Mayor Borane's suggestion to let it stand as a monument to the government's chronic inability — so far — to do anything smart about illegal immigration.
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