Leaving the movie theater several years ago after seeing the movie “Traffic,” I remember shaking my head, and telling my wife they will never stop the drug traffic into the country. I had a similar reaction after reading a newspaper report on a recent trip to southern New Mexico. This time the contraband in the story was not drugs, but people.
The Associated Press bureau in El Paso filed a story featuring Eddie Lujan and fellow members of his Border Patrol welding team. Every day they go out and fix holes cut in the 12-mile border fence the night before by illegal immigrants sneaking across from Mexico. Then he and the others on his team get up the next morning and go out and do it all over again. They face a never-ending task. Lujan’s crew consists of two Border Patrol agents and two National Guard engineers. A list of the holes in the fence are drawn up each day by patrol agents either when they see someone wiggling through or where footprints are discovered leading from the fence to El Paso. According to the AP, Lujan’s crew will patch or repair 15 to 20 holes per day.
Congress has authorized $1.2 billion for the construction of about 700 miles of fencing. Approximately half of it, 330 miles, is a virtual fence — a network of cameras, high-tech sensors, radar and other technology. The remaining 370 miles, primarily in urban areas, are expected to have an actual, two-layer fence. I am sure the new fence will be an up-grade on the existing chain-link fence currently in use in El Paso. But one has to wonder if any fence is going to prevent someone from taking a pair of bolt cutters and fashioning a hole to sneak through.
The idea is to use the fence to slow down the illegal immigrants just enough for an agent to spot them. There is a 2,100 mile border between the U.S. and Mexico in addition to the costs of the fence, how many patrol agents will it take — and at what cost? Even Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who voted for the legislation, admits building a fence that requires daily maintenance in the middle of the open desert, where agents are responsible for large swaths of territory, may not be the most efficient or cost-effective way to control illegal immigration.
I read earlier this week that 70 percent of the agricultural workers in the U.S. are illegal immigrants. I don’t know if the number is accurate, but if it is even close, the number illustrates why there is such a large motivation for immigrants to try and cross the border. A West Texas newspaper publisher friend told of the difficulties in his area this summer finding and keeping help. Everyone is heading to the oil rigs in his part of the state where they are paying two, three, even four times the going rate for inexperienced help. One hears similar accounts in the road and home construction industries.
In the same newspaper that carried the account of the border welding crew, there was a story of a Border Patrol agent who shot and killed a suspected smuggler at the fence that separates El Paso from Ciudad Juarez. The man was leading two men and a woman through a hole in the border fence. The unidentified border agent said he felt threatened by the actions of the man who was holding bolt cutters in one hand and a rock in the other. The smuggler was hit multiple times and the Mexican government has expressed a firm protest against the use of lethal weapons in the face of situations that do not represent a proportionate risk.
My reactions to the movie “Traffic” and the news account of the border welding crew arise from a similar perspective. It seems to me that in both cases we are approaching the problems from the wrong side of the supply and demand equation. In the case of drug trafficking there is just way too much money to be made by supplying Americans with illegal drugs. There is not going to be any way to stop them from coming into the country. The same is true of illegal immigrants. As long there are drug users and employers willing to hire undocumented workers, both will continue to flood into the country.
Robert Brincefield is publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.