“We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security.”
–Dwight D. Eisenhower
Tragically rare is the leader who will take the difficult road of speaking plainly and honestly to the American people. Even some contemporary American leaders reputed to be consistently candid will still pander to fears and hatreds in many instances when doing so is thought to be good for popularity. Our political establishment is propped up by a number of pillars of deception — areas of vital public policy where official action either is a response to a phantom problem or a means of making a real problem worse.
One of these pillars of deception is the argument that tightening border security is the key to protecting America from terrorist attack. It begins with the lack of proportionality that makes counterterrorism an all-consuming agenda item while international relations, lucrative commerce, and even basic human decency are considered comparatively unimportant. Politicians and pundits turn up the heat on concern about a porous border because if they were instead to shine some light on the subject, they would no longer prosper from irrational fears and the irrational policies that unite their hotblooded supporters.
It is true that some terrorist operatives, as with smugglers and spies, are simply too incompetent to manage successful covert border crossings. The bumbling novice is not the sort of terrorist operative anyone has cause to fear. Organizations like Al Qaeda provide training, funding, and support networks to their operatives abroad. Even a competent novice generally does not have trouble crossing lines on a map, given a flexible schedule that allows time for preparation and choosing the right moment for action. The idea that a border might be turned into some sort of magical force field that sinister individuals could never cross is a downright childish thought.
Yet again and again, that kind of childish thinking is encouraged in certain media audiences. Worse yet, such encouragement is answered by groundswells of public support for everything from a continuous fence along the Mexican border to forced deportation of the nation’s entire illegal alien population. There are real terrorists in this world intent on killing Americans on American soil. Yet the whole of the world, or even the whole of the problems faced by our nation, is much much much bigger than the threat posed by a fringe of extremists willing to use violence to protest American foreign policy.
This is not to say that border security deserves only a shrug. In theory, some security measures can be truly useful. In practice, no reasonable tightening (along with most of the unreasonable proposals in circulation today) has any prospect of improving national security. When it comes to the border between the U.S. and Mexico, there are two unstoppable flows. Crackdowns can raise the price of smuggling people or drugs across the line, but they do nothing to address the American appetite for illegal labor and illegal drugs.
A rational approach would hold that these inevitable flows should be subject to some sort of control. Archaic obscenities like vice prohibitions and immigration quotas forfeit opportunities for our nation to assert control over this traffic. The War on Drugs is not at all a sensible method of addressing the American demand for mind altering substances. Focusing punitive measures on industrious laborers is not at all a sensible method of addressing the American demand for low cost labor. So long as those demands persist, increasing border security will only increase the size of fortunes to be made by enterprising smugglers.
To their credit, the sitting administration did back an initiative to legalize international migrant labor. Alas, perhaps for lack of prior experience with such efforts, they were unable to focus public attention on fact-based appeals to reason. In particular, it is a fact that the status quo — not proposed reforms — is at the heart of many social and economic problems related to foreign laborers. Undocumented workers are at the mercy of lawbreaking employers. In many cases, criminal organizations also thrive by preying upon workers legitimately apprehensive of turning to police for protection.
Be it concern about ethnic gangs or concern about unpaid taxes, it is the persistent criminalization of international economic migration that obstructs positive change. Likewise, that persistent criminalization, focused much more keenly on workers than their equally culpable (and arguably much more unethical) employers, perpetuates the lure of American employment while also perpetuating the illegality of crossing the border in response to that lure. Parallel thinking also applies to the War on Drugs, though perhaps that is an analysis best left for another day.
The relevant point here is that if the law recognized inevitable economic activity related to the demands for foreign labor and narcotic substances, controlling those flows then becomes an attainable goal. We could trade a situation where millions of people have real incentives to thwart border security for a situation where only genuine menaces would choose to cross illegally. Rather than impotently whine about health risks, black market transactions, and so much more; we could guide responses to American economic demands through proper channels and screen against real dangers.
Making the existing border more difficult and/or dangerous to cross illegally is no solution. Using legalization to create a less difficult alternative is the key to gaining control. As I asserted earlier, a trained terrorist operative is going to cross borders with ease similar to that of a trained espionage agent. However, when it comes to garden variety criminal fugitives, people with dangerous contagious diseases, etc. redirecting border traffic through legitimate channels would do wonders to enable effective screening. It would also reduce the torrent of illegal traffic today down to a trickle that could be much more easily monitored.
Someone once argued that the best way to smuggle a nuclear device into the United States would be to wrap it in cocaine. That would not be my method of choice, but I see some wisdom in that statement. Insofar as there may be real threats that can be intercepted through brute force security measures, surely those measures will be more effective when applied chiefly to those real threats, as opposed to the real threats plus tens of thousands of other border jumping incidents motivated by nothing more despicable than pursuit of American money.
As it stands right now, international economic migration in excess of what is permitted under an arbitrary quota system is a victimless crime. The same can be said for drug commerce. These activities do not happen because prohibitions are too weak — they happen because no realistic public policy can wipe them out. There is no such thing as a victimless prohibition (unless it is a ban on something that does not exist.) Why then would anyone think that prohibiting harmless acts like shipping a bundle of plant material or moving in search of employment should give rise to such zealous enforcement and punishment efforts? Absolute security is an unattainable goal. Realistic security . . . well, we could take some giant steps in that direction if only we could begin by demanding realism in public dialog about border control policy.