Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Policy Fantasies: Securing the Border, Ever

In one of the more free-form absurdist utterances ever put out by an un-ironical major political figure, Mitch McConnell made the statement that immigration reform would have to wait until the border was secured in 2012. The statement was so transparently in bad faith that it is a wonder that anyone took it seriously. First, does anyone with two brain cells to rub together think a subject as politically radioactive as immigration reform will make any progress in a presidential election year? Right off the bat, even the most casual observer knows that mighty Mitch was angling to demagogue this issue for Republican success in 2012. At the very least, the Minority Leader in the Senate was attempting to find an excuse to kick the can down the road at least past the midterms. The firestorm over Arizona SB 1070 made such delaying tactics both much more transparent, and much less tolerated.

But the real hidden gem of mendacity was the idea that the border would somehow be secure by 2012. Even if you take the Administration's estimates as gospel, the 2012 date is impossibly optimistic. At best, the border will be slightly less of a sieve by that date; but secure, not even in the movies.

The dirty little secret that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans want you to know is that "securing the border" is an impossibility. First, the power structure has no desire to actually seal the border. Big business absolutely loves the cheap labor that the porous border provides; and it is more than willing to bribe our legislature and our executive to continue the "catch and release" enforcement that is our real policy. In this the oligarchic elite are not alone, ordinary U.S. citizens are also addicted to cheep, undocumented labor. Almost no one wants to actually pay the extra dollars it would cost to use well paid native labor. There is a truism that everyone wishes to ignore: there is no "illegal immigrant problem" in the U.S.; there is only an illegal employer problem.

But even if we were willing to pay the extra amount it would cost us in our purchases to pay living wages; that "sacrifice" would still not help to "seal the border." This is because of the hugest and most ignored elephant in the room: our border is impossible to defend, it is impossible to seal.

Case in point, take the very small section of the border in the state of California. Just in California, the terrain is a nightmare for the people trying to defend it. It is a combination of rugged mountains and large swaths of desert. It is a landscape that eats up both men and machines. It is a terrain that foils any technology that you throw at it. Toss in a Navy live-fire area near El Centro and no sane law enforcement officer is going into parts of the Chocolate Mountains (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chocolate_Mountains.)

Go further east and it gets no better. The state of Arizona has become a smuggling nightmare because of environmental and topographical reasons. Enforcement efforts in California have pushed the flow of immigrants into the state's vast swaths of desert. It is the same Sornoran Desert that makes enforcement efforts so hard in Imperial County, California; but much, much bigger. If you actually look at South West United State and its topography, the task of "sealing off" that vast and hostile tract of land becomes much more clear; and daunting. Further east the task gets no easier.

Once past the imposing deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, the geography of the southern United States just keeps tossing spanners in the works of border enforcement. The meanderings of the Rio Grande alone present a formidable challenge to the green-clad defenders of truth and justice know as the Border Patrol. Add in the few odd speed-bumps known as the mountain of Texas in to the mix and the challenge just gets bigger. Taken just by itself, the Rio Grande crossing presents a Sisyphean task to any government agency trying to monitor it. There are just not enough drones and more importantly drone operators to cover the area adequately. The drones cannot loiter over the area indefinitely. Once the cat is away, the coyotes (human traffickers) will play.

If the challenges of guarding the surface of the border were not maddening enough, no one has bothered to mention the Palestinian option; that is the literal undermining of the border fence. Mexicans with shovels managed to shred the most "secure" part of the southern border, that of San Diego, California. The drug and people smugglers just burrowed underneath the triple fence that hulks at Otay Mesa, California. There, in the unfashionable part of San Diego County, where jails, industrial warehouses and factories, junk yards and truck stops sprawl under the blue Southern California skies, the criminal element purpose-built a tunnel that lacked no amenities. The tunnel emptied out into one of the hundreds of non-descript houses that cover the Otay Mesa border area like a bad rash. Law enforcement sheepishly admitted that the operation ran right under their noses (and their fence) for at least seven months.

But let us say that some major miracle enables the government to meaningfully seal the southern land border, the weary DHS is still not done. Next up is the deep blue sea; lots of it. There are thousands of miles of U.S. coast that need to be observed. These are served by numerous ports large and small. Of course the great container ports are a major source of human imports. The immigrants come in the same containers that ship our iPads and other consumer toys. Customs and Border Patrol are not ignorant of these facts; they are just buried under the millions of containers that ship in every year. Customs cannot even screen the containers for the odd nuclear weapon that might try to wonder in our ports, never mind any small puny humans that might be on the same ship, hiding in other containers. If the land border is somehow closed, the human traffickers will just move to sea. The process is rather simple; place the immigrants on mother ships outside the U.S. then zip them in to unguarded shores via small boats once off U.S. waters. Europe is already dealing with this headache in the Mediterranean, a much smaller body of water than the Gulf of Mexico. Toss in the Pacific Ocean in the west and the Atlantic in east when the traffickers get really inventive, and any talk about sealing the borders becomes a cruel joke.

One does have to give a small bit of credit to Mitch McChinless for playing the "seal the border" card. The idea plays neatly into U.S. assumptions that there is always some easy technical fix to large social issues. Just put a whole mess of sensors on the ground, a few predator drones in the sky and add some more human assets and the "problem" will be solved. But as with most other simple solutions offered by the Elephant Party, the proposal does not survive even the most cursory glance. It is depressing, but reality does have a well known liberal bias. Geography is in cahoots with the "illegals flooding into the United States." Topography is conspiring to undermine our nation. It is an old story, just ask the real natives about the futility of keeping out "undesirables." The restless shade of Sitting Bull would give you an earful.