At Large

Border Security Games

The political usefulness of declaring the border secure.

By 4.19.13

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Miraculously the border between Mexico and Arizona has suddenly been declared substantially free of illegal crossers. Having announced last year that more illegal entrants had been caught and deported, the Department of Homeland Security recently has noted that the illegal immigration that previously had been such a problem for Arizona was now far reduced. Without questioning the actual statistics -- which certainly could be done -- the real issue is the political implication of these claims for the currently contemplated immigrant legalization programs.

Supporters of the several proposals under consideration tend to agree that serious indications that border security has improved are essential if any new immigration bill is to have any chance to win legislative approval. Voilà, Arizona is now said to have substantially reduced illegal immigration. How convenient for those parties eager to show that eased requirements for immigration would not necessarily be accompanied by a sharp rise of illegal border crossing. This new successful border security in Arizona is credited to the vastly increased surveillance and reaction capability now existing in the southern areas of that state.

Numbers are of questionable utility in evaluating the impact of decreased illegal immigration flow. While extolling the effectiveness of the now 18,000 patrol agents operating along the U.S.-Mexico border, the fact is that 126,500 “illegals” were apprehended in Arizona in 2012. One can only imagine what these numbers mean in respect to those “undocumented aliens” who have slipped through. In the past Border Patrol authorities have claimed they only captured a fraction of the border crossers. Even if that fraction has grown larger in this past year, the final sum remains striking.

Arizona now is heralded as a success in reducing illegal infiltration. As evidence it is pointed out Arizona once accounted for 50% of all the border apprehensions and in 2012 that was reduced to about 30%. Of course, the Customs and Border Protection Agency admits that Texas has picked up the difference. Happy Arizona Field Command -- unhappy Texas counterparts! Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. has scheduled new high profile visits to Arizona to snip off whatever credit it can from the new local statistics. Secretary Janet Napolitano was once the state’s governor and this is her old political stomping ground.

The hard working Border Patrol are the first, however, to admit that the U.S. economic downturn in recent times had to be an important factor in the diminished efforts of immigrants to sneak across the border via Arizona. At the same time, there appears to have been a temporary agreement among the leading drug smuggling groups to divide the patterns of human trafficking in this sector in order to avoid conflict in this profitable but ancillary aspect of their principal business.

The entire issue of illegal immigration into Arizona carries with it the same complexities that exist relative to immigration as a whole throughout the United States. Agriculture, construction, and other industries that use large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled workers maintain a consistent demand for seasonal and temporary labor. This is aside from those businesses ranging from meat-packing to the hotel industry that find lower paid Hispanic workers particularly useful in filling jobs once held by earlier European immigrants and African Americans.

It doesn’t take an expert demographer to determine that the issue of immigration, legal and illegal, is driven partially by economic factors but primarily by a political desire to cater to the interests of that portion of the Spanish-speaking community that originates from Mexico and Central America. National politicians are for the most part not interested in Spanish-speakers from the countries in South America. Cuba and Puerto Rico already have their own independent constituencies.

Obviously illegal border crossing issues have little political impact unless they carry with them the interests of the already established partisan organizations and informal groups.

Except in very localized issues, the non-Spanish speaking but rapidly increasing Asian population, for example, tends to be ignored. In political play are the votes of a particular segment of the Hispanic community that has the capacity to vote en bloc. Arizona contains such a group and therefore is a priority target. The serious security issue of infiltration of Middle Eastern terrorists is rarely a matter of political discussion.

By declaring a victory in Arizona on the issue of border security -- even if it’s a qualified victory -- proponents of loosened standards for the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the country have enhanced the argument that it is possible to restrain and restrict a wave of “illegals” that might seek to take advantage of new legislation. Thus the border can be secured simply by declaring it so. It’s a clever political move -- just in time for the 2014 congressional elections and the run-up to 2016.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.