Borders are psychological as well as geographical, which could explain why the line separating Texas and Mexico generates its own peculiar form of madness.
House Speaker John Boehner said the crisis on the border was so acute that it required the deployment of National Guard troops; he and his colleagues then cast a symbolic vote and left Washington for a five-week recess. Sometime Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said the U.S. could simply wall off the border, like Israel and the West Bank -- not, you might think, the most compelling model.
Then there's Texas Governor Rick Perry. His state has a genuine need to maintain safety and order along its 1,200-mile border with Mexico. Massive spending on fencing, surveillance and manpower over the past decade has made a difference and has reduced undocumented migration -- but for those who demand a sealed border, and the politicians who exploit that fantasy, it will never be good enough.
Thus, Perry's July announcement that he would send 1,000 National Guard troops to the border, adding to the ranks of Texas game wardens and other state personnel already deployed. Are the troops needed to counter the influx of children and parents from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras? Apparently not. Perry called that a "side issue."
The real problem, he said, is the criminal aliens who are responsible for more than 3,000 homicides and 8,000 sexual assaults in Texas since 2008. Those figures would be impressive if they weren't ridiculous. (Presumably, 12-year-olds from Honduras weren't scary enough; headless bodies in the desert had already been tried.)
Texas has poorly funded schools and more citizens without basic health insurance than any other state, but it has spent $500 million on border operations since 2005. The federal government's budget for immigration control is around $18 billion. These vast outlays haven't produced the desired security.
They never will. Even if the border with Mexico were somehow sealed, undocumented immigrants would use other avenues. Many of those already in the country arrived by airliner. With thousands of commercial airports, 7,000 miles of land border and 95,000 miles of shoreline, the U.S. border cannot be sealed without the nation becoming a totalitarian dystopia. (Even North Korea's border is breached -- though not, as a rule, by people trying to get in.)
During the middle of the 20th century, when the Bracero program regulated migrant Mexican labor, immigrants flowed with relative ease back and forth across the border. The more recent border militarization, a product of bipartisan consensus in Washington, has made the border more difficult to cross in both directions. Some undocumented immigrants in the U.S. no longer return south to see their families for fear they will never again gain entry to the U.S.
Even the current influx of Central Americans is not a border issue. Most are not sneaking across a porous line. They are walking intentionally into U.S. custody in hopes of being afforded asylum.
Borders are important to sovereign nations. And the U.S. border with Mexico must be properly managed and secured. But it is only one element of the nation's complex immigration challenges and policies. The border now has little to do with the millions of undocumented immigrants who have been settled in the U.S. for years and await resolution of their status from Congress. It has little to do with the current influx of children from Central America, who are appealing for sanctuary on humanitarian grounds.
Mostly, it's about politics -- and the politicians who just can't help exploiting it.
--Editors: Francis Wilkinson, Clive Crook.
To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at email@example.com