Wednesday, October 11, 2006

build it if it makes you feel better

Congress has passed legislation requiring the government to build a fence along part of the US-Mexico border; the president is waiting to sign the bill for maximum political effect before the election.

The principal objection to this plan is that the border between the US and Mexico is roughly 2,000 miles long and this fence would only cover 700 of them. There’s an obvious problem there, which is that the fence may not do much good if people can simply go around it. The less obvious problem that Congress doesn’t want to concern itself with is that pushing immigrants around the fence will lead to more deaths in the desert.

There are other problems. From the Washington Post (via Tyler Cowen):

Legislation passed by Congress mandating the fencing of 700 miles of the U.S. border with Mexico has sparked opposition from an array of land managers, businesspeople, law enforcement officials, environmentalists and U.S. Border Patrol agents as a one-size-fits-all policy response to the nettlesome task of securing the nation's borders.

Critics said the fence does not take into account the extraordinarily varied geography of the 2,000-mile-long border, which cuts through Mexican and U.S. cities separated by a sidewalk, vast scrubland and deserts, rivers, irrigation canals and miles of mountainous terrain. They also say it seems to ignore advances in border security that don't involve construction of a 15-foot-high double fence and to play down what are expected to be significant costs to maintain the new barrier.

A similar, much less ambitious fence in San Diego was built after a local congressman secured funding for the fence and for the cost of thousands of Border Patrol officers with the result that “[t]he number of crossers plummeted.” However, this came at a cost of more than $5 million a mile.
The fence in San Diego forced illegal traffic into the deserts to the east, leading thousands of migrants to their death. In response, the Border Patrol shifted thousands of agents to Arizona to deal with the flow. But many of those agents came from the San Diego and El Centro sectors. So once again, the number of crossers in San Diego and El Centro is increasing even though the two sectors are the most heavily fenced in the nation.

"Tucson now has 2,600 agents. San Diego has lost 1,000 agents. Guess where the traffic is going? Back to San Diego." said T.J. Bonner, the president of the National Border Patrol Council, the main union for Border Patrol agents. "San Diego is the most heavily fortified border in the entire country, and yet it's not stopping people from coming across."

In addition, a fence would be costly to maintain, block natural movement of wildlife, and, counterintuitively, could actually increase accessibility to the border:
In some regions along the border, the nearest main road can be 80 miles away. So to build the barrier, roads must be created. That could end up facilitating movement into the United States rather than blocking it.

Even if you assume roads would only be built on the US side, an immigrant then would just have to get to the border and across the fence somehow to a vehicle waiting on the other side.

The plan also faces opposition from local law enforcement:
In Texas, which is to get 200 miles of fencing, opposition to the plan has come from law enforcement and city governments. The City of El Paso has officially opposed the plan, as has the Texas Border Sheriff's Association.

Maverick County Sheriff Tomas S. Herrera predicted ranchers would sue the federal government to fight the installation of a fence on their property. One reason is that ranchers want access to the Rio Grande, which snakes 1,254 miles along the border, to water their herds and for sport fishermen who pay to use the waterway.

Matthew Yglesias sees a bright side to the project:
On the other hand, like Tyler Cowen I can't help but wonder if a large, ineffective wall might be the best possible outcome for pro-immigration people at this point. It wouldn't really work, but it would sharply diminish political pressure to "do something" about immigration. Meanwhile, as a liberal I don't really have a problem with the idea of an enormous wasteful construction project. It's like a WPA-style jobs programs. And, of course, all the building trades work just north of the border will probably attract a lot of immigrants.

To sum up, the project seems unlikely to achieve its intended ends, if it is ever finished, but it gives Republicans in Congress a symbolic victory before the election and a free pass for awhile to do nothing to untangle our messy and complicated immigration system. Well, better this than something worse.

And, taking a long view, the unintended consequences of the border fence could favor new immigrants. After a few years of unmitigated disaster for Americans and Iraqis, the Iraq war has had the unintended effect of making it less likely that we will start additional hasty wars and less likely that Republicans will remain in Congress next month. Alienating latino voters may ensure in the long run that we have a sensible immigration system due to the fact that there will not then be any Republicans in Congress.

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