A Dangerous Line in the Sand

It looks as if President Bush may not be able to partly privatize Social Security after all, but his reckless neglect of the immigration debate is helping to partly privatize border security.

On Friday, perhaps as many as 1,000 civilian volunteers, many of them armed, will show up in Tombstone, Ariz. -- site of the famous OK Corral -- to start a monthlong patrol of a 40-mile stretch of the southeast Arizona border.

The “Minutemen,” as they refer to themselves (Bush rightly has called them vigilantes), won’t be alone. The Border Patrol is adding reinforcements to the 2,400 agents it already has assigned to the Arizona border, and dozens of civil rights groups and immigrant advocates will also be on hand to keep an eye on the vigilantes. It all sounds rather explosive, even before you add the illegal immigrants and their criminal smugglers.


Pity the residents of those southern Arizona communities. It’s bad enough they have to bear the burden of so many illegal crossings; now they have to be host to a militia convention. Because the Border Patrol has made it a lot harder to cross the border illegally into California and Texas over the years, a disproportionate number of illegal crossings now happen in the barren Arizona desert. More than half of the 1.1 million illegal immigrants apprehended by the Border Patrol last year crossed at the Arizona border. The state ranks fifth in the number of illegal immigrants, and it has the highest concentration in the country as a percentage of the population.

The numbers have imposed a toll on Arizona taxpayers, who balk at paying for education, emergency care and incarceration of people who are in the United States illegally. The country as a whole may benefit economically from this labor flow, but border communities are overwhelmed by Washington’s failure to align federal policy with reality. This failure also is responsible for hundreds of deaths in the desert each year. The dysfunctional U.S. immigration policy screams to the world, “Come to America to work, please, but first, we have this gantlet we want you to run in the desert.” Men playing soldiers are now being added to the gantlet.

Bush always says the right things about immigration, but he never acts on them. He usually gives his smart, nuanced, former-border-governor spiel when trying to ingratiate himself with Latino voters, Mexican leaders or the Chamber of Commerce, or when trying to pad his State of the Union address.

The administration needs to simultaneously regain control of the entire border and prod Congress to find a reasonable way to deal with the millions of undocumented people already in the country, and to devise a guest worker program that satisfies the needs of the U.S. economy. This isn’t solely about economics -- the security of the country also will be enhanced once we stop tolerating this massive underground labor market. The status quo is not sustainable, and it may get more gruesome in the Arizona desert in coming days.