Take it from someone who lives in a border city, the idea that we’ll end illegal immigration by building walls and fences along the U.S.-Mexican border is as absurd as they come.
(1) It’s absurdly expensive. Cost estimates for building physical barriers run as high as $1 million per mile. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-CA, the former presidential candidate, likes to brag about how it was his legislation that built a wall near San Diego. But he rarely mentions his other bright idea — to extend the wall along the entire 2,000-mile border with Mexico. Let’s see. 2,000 miles at $1 million per mile = $2 billion. That’s a lot of money to spend to keep out lettuce pickers and rescue Americans from the horror of having to “press 1 for English.”
(2) It’s absurdly naïve to think that someone eager to feed his family and who travels hundreds of miles through Central America and Mexico is going to turn around and head home when he hits the equivalent of a “Do Not Enter” sign on the U.S.-Mexico border. Just ask the experts — the border patrol agents who spend every hour of every shift trying to keep out undocumented border crossers. They’ll tell you, as many have told me, that there’s no wall high enough, deep enough, or long enough to keep out the desperate. They’ll just go over, under, or around it.
(3) And, lastly, it’s absurdly self-defeating to build walls that turn into cages and undermine the one thing that could get illegal immigrants to return home: the pull of family. These people may work in Fresno or Spokane or Indianapolis, but it used to be they could go home for Mother’s Day or Christmas without worrying about getting back. With walls and fences they do worry (they can still get back in — see #2 — but it’ll be expensive and time-consuming), and because so many of them don’t go home they’re not reminded how much they miss home.
No wonder both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton now say they regret their votes in favor of building 700 miles of border fencing. And no wonder John McCain can muster only grudging support for the “goddamned fence.” (He told Vanity Fair that, if the restrictionists were dead-set on it, he’d build their “goddamned fence.”) How long do you suppose enthusiasm like that is going to hold once the heat gets turned up?
And speaking of heat, there is plenty of it now that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has issued waivers to skirt more than 30 laws, many of them environmental, to press ahead with plans to fulfill a Congressional mandate and finish the 700 miles of border fencing this year. Catch the irony: Chertoff went to all this trouble to show immigrants that it’s important to follow the rules, even if he had to break some rules in the process. Already lawsuits have been filed, insisting that Congress exceeded its authority by giving the executive branch so much power.
This whole process is bankrupt. And it’s actually doing more harm than good. The public loves the idea of building walls and fences. Ergo, politicians who want to be loved by the public say they love the idea of building walls and fences. This doesn’t have a thing to do with enforcement or security. It’s all about politics. We should listen to the border patrol agents and spend our resources more wisely such as providing them the tools to do their job more effectively.
Getting tough on the illegal immigration shouldn’t mean being walled off from reality.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist, a frequent lecturer and a regular contributor to CNN.com.