Wednesday, April 2, 2008

U. S. Mexico Border Fence

As a key tool to contain illegal immigration, drug trafficking and also to reduce risks of prospective terrorists arriving in this country, a reinforced fence along our 1,952 mile southern border has been proposed for several years. A specific plan was formally proposed by its principal backer, U. S. Representative Duncan Hunter from San Diego, then Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in November 2005. Eventually Congress passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006 which was signed into law by President Bush in October 2006.

Despite strong opposition from environmentalists and three Native American tribes whose lands would be divided by the fence, among others, construction of the fence is continuing and recent waivers of various federal environmental laws and regulations have put construction relatively back on track. The Department of Homeland Security under Secretary Michael Chertoff now expects to complete construction of a total of 670 miles by the end of this year.

A public opinion poll by widely respected Rasmussen Reports released in August 2007 indicated that 56% of Americans favored the fence and 31% did not. The remaining 13% apparently were neutral on the subject. Not surprisingly, 75% of Republicans reportedly supported the fence. I didn't see a figure for Democrats, but presumably they were more evenly divided.

As I indicated in a previous posting on illegal immigration, I have long opposed the fence plan, principally because to a great degree it's a waste of the taxpayers' money that can be better spent on other needs. I think the ultimate costs will far outweigh the benefits, though I also have some lesser concerns with the environmental and Native American issues.

Not long ago Secretary Chertoff estimated the construction cost at $4 -8 billion. However, according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, whose study was made public in December 2006, the estimated cost of the expected 25 year life of the fence would be as much as $49 billion, and that excludes the cost of acquiring the necessary land from private landowners! Supporting my concerns with the costs, actual per mile construction costs have uniformly far exceeded pre-construction estimates, as is very common with most government projects and programs.

Aside from the substantial costs involved, there is a serious issue with how effective a fence, even a high reinforced fence, will be. Think of all the tunnels dug across the border over the past many years, through which thousands of illegals and drug traffickers have come.

Illegals will find a way to come across the border, no matter the risks and obstacles, as long as they can't find any decent jobs in Mexico and they can earn many times more with low level jobs here. Prospective terrorists will not be materially impeded by a southern border fence either. They will try to enter the country from Canada or through our airports and ports, especially the latter because of much greater controls and vigilance at our airports.

That said, it is unrealistic that the fence construction project at this point will be either reversed or stopped, at least through the rest of this year. All opponents of the project can realistically hope for is that, following our November election, the new Administration will revisit the project and minimize marginally needed new construction for the rest of the unbuilt miles, be prudent in further spending, and implement new strategies and practices to deal more effectively with our legitimate national security and priority immigration issues.

In terms of national security, this includes strategies to improve cooperative relationships with Russia, China and India, as well as our traditional European and other Asian allies. Russia and China are especially important because of their significant political and commercial influence in Africa, the Middle East and other parts of southern Asia where al Qaeda and many other terrorists are based, operate and are funded. This influence importantly includes Iran, which has the potential to be very important in helping us stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan.

In terms of illegal immigration, this includes, as recommended in the earlier posting, a new serious and frank dialogue involving carrots and sticks with the Mexican government on how to work together to greatly curtail the flow of illegals. It also includes, among others, more effective steps to finally secure our border, a viable, well-controlled guest worker program, and stronger enforcement measures against U. S. employers knowingly hiring illegals.

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