The Border and the War on Terror

Mexico's descent into something like open war over the drug business has created anxiety in the American states closest to the border. If you believe the FBI's annual crime statistics, the big cities on or near that 1400-mile frontier -- San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso -- are among the safest metropolitan areas in America.

That has not stopped politicians from making two vital national conversations -- about immigration and terrorism -- part of the same debate. Making it sound like housekeepers, landscapers, house painters, dry-wallers, farm workers and butchers are akin to drug kingpins.

There was an interesting confrontation between Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano at a recent Capitol Hill hearing. Senator McCain told the Secretary, his home state's former governor and attorney general, that sources in border law enforcement are telling him there are hundreds of spotters for drug gangs installed on the mountains of southern Arizona, guiding shipments across the border to Phoenix, making that city the distribution center for the country's illicit drug trade.

The secretary said, firmly but courteously, that there were not hundreds of drug spotters steering cocaine north from Mexico. The senator said he was being told they were there. Was the secretary, he asked, implying his law enforcement sources were liars? Too good a politician to walk into that trap, the secretary deflected, but stuck to her point. The two, in the time-honored tradition of Washington hearings, escalated, then exchanged pleasantries and ended the argument. Hundreds of mountain spotters in Arizona? He said-she said.

For a time it looked as if a coalition cobbled together from Republicans and Democrats was ready to make a deal on immigration reform. Then succeeding elections, a shift in power on Capitol Hill and in the White House, and an economy that shed millions of jobs in a very short time changed the calculus around future immigration and the millions already here out of status.

The readiness of Republicans particularly to come to some sort of deal on immigration is gone. "Border Security First" became the mantra, millions were appropriated for beefing up the physical barriers and manpower at the frontier. No amount of success in hardening the border is judged as enough by opponents of comprehensive reform, who can answer every improvement by saying that the Mexican border especially remains dangerous.

For her part, the Secretary of Homeland Security says unauthorized border crossers are now less likely to come to the United States, more likely to be caught if they try, and more likely to be deported if they're caught. Overall, crossings are down. Sec. Napolitano said on this week's Destination Casa Blanca that word is out that it's tougher to get a cross. The efforts of her department have created a deterrence. The difficulty in finding work in the United States can't help but aid the Department of Homeland Security to cut down on illegal entries. Those same economic pressures have dropped estimates of the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States by about a million to 11 million.

Sec. Napolitano told Destination Casa Blanca that trying to seal the border first, and only then go to work on illegal crossers and unauthorized residents makes no sense politically or legally. The various challenges... securing the border, reforming the process for entry, and dealing with the millions already here, have to be done at the same time to have a chance at success, Sec. Napolitano said.

During this week's program we also spoke with representatives and leaders of various groups deeply immersed in the immigration debate: The National Council of La Raza, Cato, the Center for Immigration Studies, and the Urban Institute.

Juan Pedroza's research for the Urban Institute tells him sending people home, as many who oppose a path to citizenship for illegal residents suggest, will cost far more jobs than they create for unemployed Americans. Illegal residents are deeply enmeshed in the US economy, says Pedroza, and mass deportation will take billions in consumer spending and productivity out of the economy that will take years to replace.

Yes, the millions of illegal workers broke US laws to start their American journeys. Every day that they toil with purchased or stolen Social Security numbers, lie on paperwork, or live life off the books breaks laws large and small. These same workers keep some industries economically viable, support their citizen children, buy houses and clothes and furniture and appliances. All the appeal of simple solutions doesn't mean they would work. Stasis, doing nothing, buys time for employers while driving illegal workers further into the shadows. You and I will still get the benefit of cheap food, cheap child care, and cheap landscaping. We will also pay for hospital care for injured workers dropped off at emergency rooms, and for the schooling of illegally resident children.

You would think doing nothing would be a particularly unappealing suggestion. President Obama has held a series of meetings with Hispanic leaders from across the country to reassure them of his intention to do something about immigration. Columnist Ruben Navarrette notes the president has promised a lot and delivered very little on this issue for a faithful Democratic constituency. After the 2010 midterms, it will be interesting to see how Democrats convince minority voters, particularly Latinos, that keeping President Obama in the White House is in their continued interest.