Our wall: an Opinion L.A. debate

A Nieman Marcus on the border

The question we're starting this exchange with is, "A wall along the border: security necessity or political gimmick?"

The answer is—Both!

There's no question that for some politicians, supporting expanded fencing on our border with Mexico is little more than a ruse, designed to dupe voters into thinking they are serious about immigration control. The late Pat Moynihan called this sort of thing "boob bait for bubba." Sen. Sam Brownback is an example of a politician who sees a border fence as "boob bait"—he makes a big show of his support for a fence to deflect attention from his well-earned nickname of "Amnesty Sam," bestowed on him because of his high-profile support for the McCain-Kennedy amnesty bill.

At the same time, a fence really is an essential tool for immigration enforcement. After all, if a foreigner (whatever his intentions) can't get into the United States, he can't become an illegal alien. Although prospective border-jumpers are always going to try to climb over it, dig under it, or walk around it, those things take time and cost money, making the fenced portions of the border much less attractive for illegal crossings.

And modern border fencing has proven its effectiveness, most notably in San Diego, where an anarchic situation with hundreds of illegals rushing past the Border Patrol every night has been replaced by relative order, such that there's now actually a Neiman Marcus right up against the border there.

But while fencing is important, it's not a silver bullet for the illegal-immigration problem—if for no other reason than that fully one-third of the illegal-alien population crossed the border legally, on a visa, and then never left. So maybe another way to ask today's question is why there's so much emphasis in the political debate on border-control measures (not just fencing, but additional agents and the rest), rather than the many other things that are also needed to restore control to the immigration system.

The answer seems to be that enhanced border enforcement is the one thing that opponents of immigration control think they have to agree to, to remain politically viable. In other words, border control really is seen as a political gimmick, at least by the loose-enforcement crowd (not just Brownback, but John McCain and Ted Kennedy and their ilk, as well as President Bush himself). Immigration hawks have gone along with this because, even though they recognize that fencing is just one tool among many, it's the only thing they can get, and they've concluded that something is better than nothing.

This dynamic has been at work for many years. Early in the Clinton Administration, the Border Patrol tried new tactics that successfully diverted illegal crossings from the high-traffic corridors of San Diego and El Paso. This partial success (partial because the crossings, as expected, shifted to elsewhere along the border) was hailed by immigration hawks, because they were ecstatic to see something, anything, being done.

The result was a decade of significantly increased spending on the border, with the construction of (a little) fencing and a doubling of the Border Patrol. But at the very same time, enforcement of the ban on hiring illegal aliens came to a virtual halt, in the face of intense opposition from business, expressed through its representatives in Congress. This is important because border enforcement can help reduce the supply of illegals, but turning off the magnet of jobs is essential to reducing the demand—and we need to do both to restore order.

If there's a lesson in how the opponents of real immigration control have used border fencing as a political gimmick, it's this: Immigration hawks must insist on pairing any increased border measures with increased efforts at internal enforcement.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports tighter controls on immigration.

Stop chasing that busboy

If only a wall could do the trick—and if only wishing for money could make you rich, or looking the other way could make you safe. Sure, it sounds plausible. People claim walls work in other countries. But the problem is it won't work here—our border's too long, the jobs we need done too plentiful. And yes, by and large, a wall is a political gimmick—perpetrated not, as Mark Kirkorian suggests, by immigration reformers, but by lazy legislators in both parties who want to look tough without thinking seriously about the problem.

That doesn't mean we don't need to get control—we do. No one, right or left, who thinks seriously about immigration thinks the current illegality is acceptable—and that includes reformers like President Bush, John McCain, Sam Brownback, Mel Martinez and others, Krikorian's invective notwithstanding. The current illegality undermines the rule of law. It endangers our security. It hurts American workers, undercut by foreigners afraid to bargain for their rights. It's even bad for business: few employers who hire illegal immigrants save much in wages—most immigrants make more than the minimum wage—but it's hard to run any kind of shop with an unreliable, unstable supply of labor. The only people who benefit are the smugglers and forgers and the relatively small number of employers who deliberately exploit their illegal workforce.

The question is how to get control, and the hard truth is it's going to take a lot more than a wall. Yes, we need some physical barriers, particularly in border cities where the distances are short and the immigrant traffic tends to be concentrated. Yes, we need a virtual fence—more men, more lights, more cameras, more sensors, more aerial drones, more computerized coordination, as well as more judges, more lawyers, more detention beds—along more remote sections of the frontier.

But the most effective way to get control of illegal immigration isn't on the border; it's in the workplace. It's about ensuring that every available job—every job for which an employer can't find an American worker—is filled by a legal immigrant. Because once we do that—once illegal immigrants can't find work in the U.S.—there will be little or no incentive for them to make the long, difficult trip from their home countries.

So Mark Krikorian and I agree up to a point: the trick is to "remove the jobs magnet." Where we disagree is whether or not you can do that simply by cracking down in the workplace. Mark believes we can. I say that cracking down only works if the law you're trying to enforce bears some relation to reality. It was all but impossible to enforce Prohibition. It would be all but impossible to slow traffic on the interstate to 25 mph. And it's all but impossible for government bureaucracies to fight the laws of supply and demand—to fight the global economic forces generating today's immigrant influx.

Besides, why would we want to? By and large those global economics are working to our benefit. What we need to do is stop resisting and start managing those forces more effectively—managing them so that we reap the maximum benefit (the economic growth and the immigrant vitality) without the costs (the illegality). How to go about that? The place to start is with realistic laws—immigration quotas more in line with our labor needs.

Not only is that the key to control, it will also be far more effective than any fence in reinforcing our security. I'll never forget the veteran immigration agent, working undercover on the border in Arizona, who asked me: "What if another 9/ll happens and it happens on my watch because I'm so busy chasing your next busboy or my next gardener that I don't have time to look for potential terrorists?" More realistic immigration quotas would take care of the busboys and gardeners, freeing agents like him to the job we need him to do.

Mark Krikorian likes to call himself a hawk and make fun of immigration reformers, but the truth is there's only one way to get control—not with a fence, but with more realistic quotas, combined with much tougher enforcement in the workplace. And if Mark and other "hawks" were serious about control, they'd recognize this.

Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Other immigration exchanges in this week's Dust-Up
< Day 1  |  Day 2  |  Day 3  |  Day 4  |  Day 5 >