What “Secure Borders” Would Really Be Like

One of the canards we hear about immigration reform is that before we can work on the issues of the 12 million or so informal immigrants inside the United States we have to secure the border. This seems imminently reasonable, as long as one does not dig too deeply into what that means. It is a nice, simple and clearly intelligible idea, “Secure Our Borders”. Let’s talk a little bit about what that would actually mean.

The southern border of the United States is 1,969 miles long. The northern border is 1,538 miles long. These are just the land borders of course, the shoreline on the East and West coasts are bigger still. If we are to “secure the border!” then we have to guard, just on land more than 3,400 miles. These miles, both North and South snake through some very rough country, but they also cut through ranches and Native American nation reservations. The line includes cities and towns which have grown up on the border to take advantage of the fact of the line between nations.

"Originally posted at Squarestate.net"

The task is Herculean before we even get to the concept of what a secure border is. Lately I have seen several guests on various MSNBC news shows talk about how the South Koreans have a secure border or that Israel does a good job in securing its borders. To be fair this is true, those borders, compared to ours, are locked down very tight. They are also completely militarized.

The border between North and South Korea is 160 miles long, less than a tenth of our southern border. To secure it, there are an estimated 3 million landmines (according to Ban Mines U.S.A) and more than half a million troops along that patch of land.

Israel is a similar situation. The Golan Heights, Israel’s border with Syria, has over 2,000 mine fields along the border and around military installations. There are also tanks and gun emplacements, there are artillery and lots and lots of soldiers stationed along this border.

The question becomes is this the level of security we are talking about when we so cavalierly throw around the term “secure the border”? There is no doubt that tens of millions of landmines scattered along our northern and southern border would make the already difficult trek deadly enough to deter almost all informal immigrants. People take a chance of dying in the dessert, 189 died trying to cross into the Arizona last year, but knowing you have to cross a minefield is an order of magnitude higher danger.

Do we also want to actually station large numbers of our military on the border? As a general rule the American people don’t like the idea of tanks and armored personnel carriers stationed and armed inside our nation. We have always been of the mind that our military should not be used for law enforcement. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1877 was put in place to prevent the use of the military in a law enforcement role inside the states. It would take an act of Congress to authorize the militarization of our borders, but it would be legal.

There would be an extreme cost to all of this, of course. It is hard to say with any kind of certainty what it would take to truly close our borders, but given that the Border Patrol has 20,000 agents, it is reasonable to assume it might take as many as 150,000 troops to lock down the borders. For comparison, that is about the number that currently occupy Iraq.

By stationing that many of our troops along our borders, we would be faced with a choice, either drastically increase the size of our military or face a vastly reduced ability to respond to military threats world wide. Right now between our war in Afghanistan and our occupation of Iraq there are only about 30,000 troops available for a military emergency somewhere else in the world.

There is also a psychological cost of building fortress like borders. Armed borders tend to make a nation feel that it is it against the world. For a nuclear armed superpower this is not a good mental stance to have. We have seen first hand the damage the United States can do when it is run with a “with us or against us” mentality. Highly militarized borders would only increase the likelihood of that attitude coming to prominence again.

We would also lose something that is at the core of the American mind. The Statue of Liberty reads:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

This is what one of the faces of the United States. To militarize our borders would be a full repudiation of this aspect of the United States and would be a grave mistake for our place in the world now and in the future.

There is no doubt that we must do more to control our enormous borders. It is important that we have some kind of check on the smuggling trade in and out of the Untied States. However we must face reality. There is almost no chance that we will take the draconian measures required to actually lock down our borders. The cost to our nation in dollars, mentality, civil society and world standing is just too high. Even if we were to take this disastrous course it would fail. Fully half of all the informal immigrants in this nation came in with visas and then did not go home when they expired. They crossed the existing borders legally, and that would not change even with the installation of 10 million landmines.

We must also resist the Lucy and the football situation that Republicans will put us in by their insistence that we “secure the borders”. They either know this is something that is not feasible or want the kind of changes that a fully militarized border would bring to the U.S.

The real way to control the border is to rationalize our immigration system. To allow workers to come here legally instead of having to risk their lives crossing a hostile border. As long as we insight that hard work in fields and meat packing plants, in hotel rooms and gardens be paid extremely low wages with no benefits Americans will continue to look for other work. There will also be those who see doing that kind of hard work here as a step up from what they have in their homes and risk their lives to get it.

This is where we should be focusing our efforts not on some quixotic quest to seal the border like a Tupperware container.

The floor is yours.

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