Border fence: symptom of a failed policy

As Congress considers how to better control illegal immigration, the House and Senate are lining up behind a controversial idea: erecting fencing to reinforce the US-Mexico border. Do fences make good neighbors? Or just cause offense?

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a proposal that includes double- and triple-fencing near Arizona cities and in part of the state's desert. In December, the House passed a bill calling for, among other steps against illegal migrants, some 700 miles of fencing along the 2,000 mile border.

Activists on both sides of the fence issue raise compelling arguments. But they ought to be able to agree at least on this: A fence is a tactic, not a policy. In fact, it's symptomatic of the failure of federal policy to get a grip on illegal immigration.

The number of people unlawfully in the US grew by at least 400,000 in 2005, bringing that total population to between 11.5 million and 12 million. This seemingly endless wave imposes serious social and financial hardship on America's 24 southwest border-counties, as well as a post-9/11 security threat.

Arizona's four border counties, for instance, requested $23 million from the federal government to cover the expense of jailing illegal entrants last year. They received a mere $731,000. Such strain led two governors to declare border emergencies last year, and Arizona's governor just ordered more National Guard to the border.

As an issue, illegal immigration is moving to the rest of the country. Citizen enforcement groups, for instance, are trying to shut down day labor sites, frequented mostly by undocumented migrant workers.

Hiring illegals flouts the law. Undocumented workers put unfair downward pressure on wages, and have eaten into some service-sector work that used to go to legal workers - a double whammy given the offshoring of manufacturing jobs overseas. The lion's share of Americans tell pollsters that illegal immigration is "very serious."

Objectors to fencing have a point: It will only force people smugglers to become cleverer and more dangerous, using tunnels and boats. And the US will pay a diplomatic price for a move perceived by Mexico as an affront.

Yet sections of fencing would also stretch across desert areas where hundreds of migrants lose their lives each year. And the funneling effect would make patrolling the lengthy border more efficient. A fence in San Diego County, approved by Congress in 1996, has dramatically reduced people and narcotics trafficking there, and allowed agents to refocus on problem areas. As for a diplomatic backlash, perhaps fencing would help Mexico face the fact that it must do more to help its people decide to stay home.

American poet Robert Frost observed that "Something there is that does not love a wall." He's right. Hundreds of miles of border barriers are unseemly, and might suggest racism.

But with only three US companies sanctioned for illegal-immigration violations in 2004, and a Mexican government that also won't take this subject seriously, that doesn't leave much choice. Until both governments are ready to deal with underlying causes, US immigration policy will amount to little more than tactics.

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