Sunday, July 26, 2009

Building More Border Walls is Not Effective Immigration Reform

By Scott Nicol

In 2006, both the House and Senate passed Comprehensive Immigration Reform bills. Each contained hundreds of miles of border wall, inserted as a bone to lure conservative support. The bills differed on a number of points, including the number of miles of wall to be built. When a conference committee convened to craft a final bill they were unable to work out their differences, and immigration reform died in committee. From its ashes Congress pulled the one thing that they could agree on: 700 miles of border wall.

The stated goal of the Secure Fence Act was to “achieve and maintain operational control over the entire international land and maritime borders of the United States.” Nearly 3 years later, most of the border walls that it mandated are complete. Time to dust off the “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” banner and hang it on the border?

Apparently not. This month Senator Jim DeMint, whose home state of South Carolina is closer to Canada than Mexico, inserted an amendment into the Senate’s bill funding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It changes the Secure Fence Act to say that, “Fencing that does not effectively restrain pedestrian traffic (such as vehicle barriers and virtual fencing) may not be used to meet the 700-mile fence requirement.”

As of July 17, DHS claims to have completed 331 miles of “pedestrian fencing” and 302 miles of vehicle barriers. If DeMint’s amendment makes it through the House/Senate Conference Committee and is signed into law, the border wall will suddenly be 369 miles short of its new mandate. DHS will probably replace many of the 302 miles of vehicle barriers with “pedestrian fence,” inflicting tremendous environmental damage in the process. That leaves at least 67 miles of brand new border wall to be built in places that are currently unwalled. With California, Arizona, and New Mexico largely walled off, those new border walls will most likely be built in Texas.

So far, Congress has given the Department of Homeland Security $3.1 billion for border wall construction. The Army Corps of Engineers reported that between February and October of 2008 the cost of building walls increased by 88%, from an average of $3.5 million per mile to $7.5 million per mile. Some sections of border wall are particularly expensive: the levee-border wall combination in South Texas averaged $12 million per mile; in California, a 3.5 mile section that involved filling in canyons cost taxpayers $57 million.

If the Secure Fence Act succeeded in achieving “operational control” of the border, why should we spend no less than (and quite possibly a lot more than) $2,767,500,000.00 to build 369 miles of new border wall?

First and foremost, the border wall has failed to stop either immigrants or smugglers from entering the United States. The majority enter through ports of entry, rather than crossing the desert on foot or the Rio Grande on an inner tube, so walls erected between the ports have no effect on them. And according to the Border Patrol, even those who find the wall directly in their path are only slowed down by around 5 minutes. As Border Patrol spokesperson Mike Scioli said, “The border fence is a speed bump in the desert.”

Professor Wayne Cornelius, with the University of California at San Diego, has spent more than a decade interviewing immigrants before and after they cross the border. His research has revealed that, even with border walls,

“fewer than half of migrants who come to the border are apprehended, even once, by the Border Patrol. … [T]he apprehension rate found in these studies varied from 24% to 47%. And of those who are caught, all but a tiny minority eventually get through – between 92 and 98 percent, depending on the community of origin. If migrants do not succeed on the first try, they almost certainly will succeed on the second or third try.”

Professor Cornelius goes on to conclude,

“the eventual success rate is virtually the same for migrants whose most recent crossing occurred before 1995, when the border was largely unfortified, and those crossing in the most recent period. In other words, the border enforcement build-up seems to have made no appreciable difference in terms of migrants’ ability to enter the United States clandestinely.”

So why would Senators, ranging from alleged fiscal conservatives such as Texas Republican John Cornyn to New York Democrat Charles Schumer, vote to spend nearly $3 billion on more border walls when those already erected do not work?

Simply put, for those politicians who do not live beside the border, and do not count on the votes of those who do, the border wall is an abstraction. The reality that the border wall has little or no impact on border crossers is irrelevant. The reality that more than 300 property owners have had their property condemned is irrelevant. The reality that federally designated wilderness areas and wildlife refuges have been severely impacted is irrelevant. The Senators who voted for more border walls were voting for a symbol, nothing more.

Even the Department of Homeland Security recognizes this fact. After DeMint’s amendment was adopted, DHS spokesman Matt Chandler told the Wall Street Journal that it is, “designed to prevent real progress on immigration enforcement and [is] a reflection of the old administration's strategy: all show, no substance."

Senator Schumer, who will be introducing a Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill around Labor Day, wrote in an op-ed, “I voted to require the Department of Homeland Security to construct significant fortifications to the border fence” as proof that he is, “serious about securing the border.” He did not bother to defend the effectiveness of the border wall, because that was not the point. The wall that he voted for is simply a symbol, meant to show that immigration reform and border enforcement can go arm in arm.

Senator Schumer seems to think that by voting for more walls, and more than likely including border walls in his Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill, he can appease conservatives like Cornyn and gain their votes. If so, he is deluded. No matter how much of the borderlands the bill sacrifices for the sake of empty gestures, immigration reform will not woo conservatives. It is far more likely that Schumer will instead see a repeat of 2006, in which the only part of Comprehensive Immigration Reform that makes it to the President’s desk is hundreds of miles of border wall.

Our nation desperately needs immigration reform. But as Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said this past February, “you cannot build a fence from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, and call that an immigration policy.”

It is a message that Congress sorely needs to hear.