'Enforcement first' has already happened on border with Mexico

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Friday, August 13, 2010;

We were eight Mexican peasants, one smuggler and me -- desperately stretched out in dirt furrows in the night. The Border Patrol helicopter with its huge searchlight kept coming closer. It stopped, hovered and turned the other way.

"Madre," whispered Pablo, who at 17 was the youngest among us.

We took off running, then crawling past a parked Border Patrol jeep that was so close you could hear the patrol officers as they booked a group they had caught. Finally, two hours after squirming under a fence in Tijuana, we were running down empty streets in San Ysidro, Calif., to a safe house and America.

This was in 1977, and I retell the story from my days as a reporter to make three points as Congress, moving with surprising speed, is sending the president $600 million in emergency border enforcement funding.

One is that the border will never be "sealed," as some want. Two is that "enforcement first," which Republican legislators are demanding, has already happened. Three is that illegal immigration won't stop until there is a temporary worker program and those already here have been legalized.

The funding provides for 1,000 additional Border Patrol agents and more drones, sensors, legal infrastructure and the like.

The legislation will bring the number of agents on the Mexican border to more than 18,200. Along the 2,000-mile border, that is nine per mile. Despite all the fences and advanced paraphernalia, some people will always sneak through, raising the question of how much more spending is worth it on top of the $10 billion being spent this year on just the Border Patrol.

History is littered with the folly of fortress strategies, of building walls, from the Chinese to the French. For that reason, the Mexican border was never intended by this or past administrations to be the only line of enforcement.

But partly because the Department of Homeland Security is poor at explaining itself, and partly because the Obama administration is squeamish about talking enforcement, few Americans appear to be aware of how the many pieces fit together in what is a "layered" strategy, and how effective it has become.

Over the past 15 years, the government has gained operational control over the Texas and California borders. That success has pushed most of the illegal immigration into the Arizona deserts. The new funding is largely to help plug that last gap.

Meanwhile, the old "catch and release" programs ended in 2005. Instead of being given administrative violations, most crossers are now charged criminally and jailed for an average of 60 days if caught a second time. This carries cultural shame for otherwise law-abiding Mexicans. More than 135,000 crossers have been prosecuted in southern and western Texas alone, which is a spreading deterrent.

The border has been expanded, too. The Border Patrol can search without a warrant up to 25 miles away, and in some cases up to 100.

In the nation's interior -- the Arizona hoopla aside -- state and local police are extensively collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on any immigrant who has been arrested for anything. Many local jails check every detainee against immigration databases, and all U.S. jails are expected to do so by 2013.

Since last year, every federal contractor has been checking new hires against the ever-improving databases. Hundreds of other employers, who once got off with a wink, are getting serious fines for hiring unauthorized immigrants.

Students, businesspeople and all those who enter on temporary visas are now rigorously screened abroad. Their fingerprints and photos are entered into databases. A congressionally mandated system to check that they leave the United States when their visas expire is under development.

More can be done -- on the border and by implementing a biometric work card -- but the above are proven, working programs. They partly explain why the Obama administration is likely to deport 400,000 people this year and why illegal border traffic is at its lowest level since 1970.

Demanding more "enforcement first" is misleading, if not fraudulent. What is most needed now to make enforcement totally work is a temporary worker program that provides a legal alternative for businesses and immigrants -- and the legalization of those immigrants who came wrongly in the meantime. Then we will have true rule of law.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is edward.schumachermatos@yahoo.com.

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