September 25, 2011

HERE’S SOME NEWS: When the current fiscal year ends this week, illegal border crossings from Mexico, as measured by apprehensions carried out by a massively beefed-up Border Patrol, will fall to their lowest level since 1972. You read that right. The southwestern border — the very same frontier portrayed by Republicans as so wildly out of control that it rules out any serious discussion of immigration reform — is in fact more tightly controlled than at any time since President Richard M. Nixon’s first term. Now here’s a suggestion: Wouldn’t it be novel if Republicans, who are at least partly responsible for this dramatic success, acknowledged it? And wouldn’t it also be honest?

Although final numbers won’t be available for a few more days, it appears that captures of illegal border crossers will be in the range of 325,000 for fiscal 2011. That is down 50 percent since 2008; 70 percent since 2006; and 80 percent since 2000, when 1.6 million undocumented immigrants were picked up after crossing the border. Also, new technology means fewer people can sneak over the border undetected.

It was a Republican president, George W. Bush, who began the buildup, doubling the number of Border Patrol officers at the border since 2002.

That force — now 18,000-strong — has played a role in deterring illegal crossings, as have the anemic U.S. economy; improvements in the Mexican economy and schools; and more liberal issuance of visas by the U.S. consulate in Mexico City. The Obama administration has kept up the pressure by continuing the Bush buildup and, until recently, getting tough with deportations.

Yet GOP presidential candidates and members of Congress continue to paint the border as chaotic and crime-ridden. As far as we can tell, none of them has publicly recognized the impressive gains at the border. Instead, most call for impractical, far-reaching — and hugely expensive — security measures. They justify those steps (when they bother with justification) with random anecdotes, sweeping (and often unprovable) assertions and obsolete data.

It’s worth asking Republicans a few questions. Is it really worth spending billions of dollars to build a fence across the entire 2,000-mile Mexican border, as several GOP candidates have said? Would they really revive the project to construct a so-called virtual electronic fence, which was abandoned last year after $575 million was spent to erect camera and radio towers covering just 58 miles of the border in Arizona, amid criticism that the system never worked?

Surely, there is a point of diminishing returns to such spending, particularly with illegal crossings plummeting. It’s time for the GOP to declare victory, claim credit and move to the next stage — fixing the system and providing a path to legal status for 11 million undocumented immigrants who, like it or not, have become an integral part of the nation’s fabric.