Managing our borders

Published: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 11:34 p.m.
Hundreds of new Border Patrol and immigration agents. Gigantic, double-layer steel fences along the California and Arizona borders. Infrared and daylight cameras. Stadium lighting. A new surveillance drone. Expanded detention facilities.
Call it force and fear - America's military formula for immigration control, embodied in legislation the House of Representatives passed in December. The get-tough House Republicans who pushed the bill said they're dead-set against the balance of a guest worker program, a measure that President Bush and most reformers now favor (and the Senate will soon be debating).
If the House's punitive, military-style response were but an exception, a quick and alarmed response to the flood of 11 million illegal entrants into the U.S., it might be condoned. But it's not; since 1990 we've quadrupled our border agents and installed big amounts of high-tech detention technology - only to see the flood of undocumented migrants increase. The House bill boils down to an ugly war on undocumented immigrants.
It's not our only war. Since the '70s, our vaunted "war on drugs" has failed to make any dent in illegal substance use, even while making trade in drugs ultra-profitable and creating incentive for inner city blocks to turn into criminal hellholes. Brutal mandatory sentences have been imposed - mostly on minorities. Billions of dollars have gone to destructive military campaigns to destroy drug crops in Colombia and elsewhere. Driven by the long mandatory sentences passed by Congress and like-minded state legislatures, the U.S. now has more than 2 million people behind bars, the highest of any nation.
Now President Bush keeps on reminding us we're in a third war - on terror. The 9-11 attack means the peril is real; few question a need for intensive intelligence and protective measures. But does the word "war" mean we're supposed to favor the U.S. attack on Iraq, Guantanamo Bay incarceration without due process, "rendition" of suspects for torture in foreign countries, and now warrantless spying on Americans?
"We've moved to military solutions, the use of violence or threat of violence, as the card we play for alarming numbers of problems," notes the Rev. Jim Dickerson of the New Community Church in Washington, D.C. Without denying the concept of "just wars," Dickerson warns that "violence too often simply begets more violence, not long-term solutions."
There are two metaphors for the America we want, says Manuel Pastor, professor of the Latin American and Latino Studies Department at the University of California-Santa Cruz: "One is the metaphor of war in Iraq, on terrorism, on drugs, on immigration. The other is the Statue of Liberty, America as the beacon of light and opportunity for all who play by the rules."
Today's rules, Pastor and others note, create a Catch-22 for would-be migrants responding to the United States' immense appetite for low-cost labor. Either they apply for legal entry and face years of bureaucratic delay, or they enter illegally, manage to get work and income for their often impoverished families, but face deportation if they're apprehended.
We do need rational immigration policy that controls the flows over our borders, says Pastor: There's "concern whether our labor markets can absorb unlimited numbers, whether we can assimilate politically and culturally and socially all who want to come."
What we need, he argues, is a realistic debate about such issues as guest worker programs and possible amnesty for workers already here - "approaches that don't tear apart our moral character."
Too often missing, Pastor adds, are complementary steps to integrate new immigrants - adequate English classes, better job training, helping parents get involved with their children's schools - "steps that benefit everyone, lifting up our human capital and our productivity as a society."
The issue is "close up and personal for me," says Pastor: His own father came to the U.S., undocumented, in the 1930s; in World War II he chose the U.S. Army over deportation. "A generation later his son is a full professor at the University of California."
The reminder is apt: With the exception of Native Americans, all our families came to these shores as immigrants, with motives no more exalted than those of today's low-income migrants clamoring to get across our southern border.
Of course it's grossly impractical for us to accept any and all migrants from across a poverty-scarred globe. But does that mean that we can employ boundless force and fear and successfully stop migrants? Or really believe the stiff penalties on employers who hire undocumented workers, incorporated in the new House bill, will ever be enforced?
Retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican and expert on immigration and border issues, has it right when he says the House bill will just "throw words and money at the problem."
Radically fresh thinking is critically needed. Let's just make sure it's not about another war.
Neal Peirce writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.

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