At a White House ceremony on Thursday, President Bush put his signature to a bill authorizing 700 miles of additional fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border. The bill supposedly demonstrates the determination of Congress to stop illegal immigration, but like much of its other efforts, the fence legislation is more symbolism than substance.
The 15-foot-high fencing with barbed wire and stadium lighting will cost at least $1.2 billion and may not be completed for years, if ever. And even if built, America’s recent history of pouring more and more resources into enforcing current immigration laws offers little hope that the fence will stem the inflow of undocumented workers.
The federal government has tried for two decades now to curb illegal immigration, with spending and border-patrol personnel up dramatically since the late 1980s. In the 1990s, the government erected miles of fencing through major urban corridors such as San Diego and El Paso. The fences only diverted the flow of humanity into more remote desert regions while the actual number of illegal immigrants entering the country each year and total number here has just kept growing.
The response of Congress to this obvious policy failure has been to spend more on the same failed policies. The same Congress that funded “the bridge to nowhere” in Alaska has now funded a “wall to nowhere” on our Southwest border.
Even if all 700 miles of fence become a reality, more than 1,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border will still be unfenced. The fees smugglers charge will continue to rise, along with their sophistication. More anonymous bodies will pile up in morgues as workers enter through even harsher terrain. And those immigrants who enter will tend to stay longer because of the high risk and expense of re-entering.
Even if we could fence all 2,000 miles of the border with Mexico, illegal immigration would continue because of visa “overstayers.” A third or more of people living in the United States illegally actually entered the country legally and then overstayed their visas. On a typical day, 800,000 Mexicans enter the United States through 43 legal ports of entry along the border. They come to shop, visit relatives, and conduct business. The large majority goes back home within a few days, but a minority stays and disappears into the general population.
Drastically reducing legal entries from Mexico would be an economic disaster. Mexico is America’s second largest trading partner, and expanding trade and investment ties depend on expanding cross-border visits. Mexican shoppers and tourists have fueled economic growth in U.S. border communities. The only lasting solution to illegal immigration will be to offer a legal alternative.
If congressional leaders truly want a “secure border,” any enforcement efforts must be combined with comprehensive immigration reform. A temporary worker program of the type supported by President Bush and approved in May by the U.S. Senate would allow peaceful and hardworking people to enter the United States legally instead of illegally.
A temporary worker program would allow foreign-born workers to enter the United States temporarily to fill jobs—in such important sectors as construction, retail, hospitality, food processing and agriculture—that an insufficient number of Americans are available and willing to fill. It would offer an alternative means of entry for workers from Mexico and other countries who are now tempted to enter the United States illegally to help support their families back home.
Such a program would lower the inflow of illegal immigrants by expanding the channel for legal entry. In the 1950s, the U.S. government dramatically expanded the number of temporary visas available through the Bracero program for Mexican agricultural workers. The result was an equally dramatic fall in illegal entries to the United States. When Congress ended the program in 1964, illegal immigration began to climb again and has not stopped since.
Our own experience teaches that border enforcement alone without real immigration reform is doomed to fail. If it is ever built, the 700-mile fence will stand only as a monument to the failure of Congress to learn from that experience.