The U.S. border and immigration reform

October 21, 2011

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Take your pick. Cities and towns on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico are among the safest in the country. Or: Mexican drug gangs have turned the longest stretch of the 2,000-mile border, the line between Texas and Mexico, into a war zone.

The first version is President Barack Obama’s. He has crime statistics on his side. The second comes from an alarmist 182-page report by two retired generals, including former drug czar Barry McCaffrey. Among their assertions: “Living and conducting business in a Texas border county is tantamount to living in a war zone in which civil authorities, law enforcement agencies as well as citizens are under attack around the clock.”

(True enough for large parts of Mexican territory south of the border, where more than 42,000 people have died since President Felipe Calderon declared war on drug mafias five years ago.)

The stark contrast between the two versions speaks volumes about the war of words generated by the issues of immigration and border security during an election campaign. Most of the Republican presidential hopefuls have been competing on who sounds toughest on illegal immigration and on the height of the wall they want to build between the two countries.

Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, fired the opening salvo in the who-is-the-toughest contest by saying there should be a barrier “every mile, every foot, every inch” to keep illegal immigrants out. Herman Cain, a front-runner in the Republican primary contest according to latest polls, upped the ante by suggesting a division reminiscent of the Iron Curtain, the lethal system of walls, fences, minefields and manned watch towers that divided Europe during the Cold War.

“It’s going to be 20 feet high,” he said on October 15. “It’s going to be electrified. And there’s going to be a sign on the other side saying ‘It will kill you – Warning.'” A day later, Cain told a television interviewer he meant that as a joke. Another day later, he said he believed a border fence was in fact needed and it could be electrified.

The electrified fence flip-flop followed Cain remarks in the summer holding out the Great Wall of China, at around 5,500 miles the longest wall ever built, as a model for separating the United States and Mexico. He failed to mention that the Chinese wall did not do what it was meant to do – keep out the northern barbarians against whom it was mean to protect.

A refresher course in history would be useful for Bachmann, Cain and a host of others who talk of “securing the border” as the essential first step on the way to reforming an immigration system almost everybody agrees is dysfunctional. There has never been an impenetrable border though that indisputable fact did nothing to prevent Congress, in 2006, from passing a bill that set an impossible target.


That was to establish “operational control” over the world’s busiest border (about 350 million crossings a year). The Secure Fence Act defined operational control as “the prevention of all unlawful U.S. entries, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism and other contraband.”

To do that, the U.S. Border Patrol has been doubled in size (to around 20,000 agents) under a build-up begun in the administration of George W. Bush and continued under Obama, who won the presidency partly thanks to Latino voters who believed his campaign pledge that he would push through “comprehensive immigration reform” within one year of taking office.

That reform is meant to tackle all aspects of the system, from complicated entry visa regulations to the presence of an estimated 10 million illegal immigrants, the majority Mexicans, already in the country. Once in office, he made little effort to fulfill his promise but his administration steadily stepped up the pace of deportations. They reached a record 400,000 in the fiscal year that ended in September.

The irony of so much emphasis on deporting illegal immigrants under a president who promised so much more has not escaped the Latino community and groups supporting a balanced approach to the complex problem. Joanne Lin of the American Civil Liberties Union noted that the record deportations came at a time when “illegal immigration rates have plummeted, the undocumented population has decreased substantially and violent crime rates are at their lowest in 40 years.”

Violent crime across the United States has been dropping every year since 2006, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Does that hold true for the border region the generals’ report describes as a war zone under assault from Mexican gangs?

In May, the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, Steve McCraw, listed violence his agency had identified as “directly related to the Mexican cartels.” Between January 2010 and May 2011, he said, there were 22 murders, 24 assaults, 15 shootings and 5 kidnappings — 66 incidents in all in a state with 23 million people.

That translates into 3.9 per month. Not much of a war.


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Maybe Mexico will be the next military expedition instead of Pakistan…. After all we had a war with Mexico in 1845 or thereabouts, and a ‘Punitive Expedition’ against Pancho Villa in 1916-1917….
So there is a precedent that the military can use to keep their war machine going…

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

Drug runners already dig tunnels under the border. If there’s a wall there, they will just dig longer tunnels. They even use submarines (Google “drug submarine”). The only thing that will stop the cartels is for Americans to stop buying their drugs. Unfortunately that’s not going to happen.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

The drug running and the gangs all go away if Prohibition is repealed in the USA. It is all about money, on one side, and belligerent moralism on the other.

Funny, but the same people bent on “preserving” the “moral fiber” of America are the same people cutting medicine for old people who have already paid for it. And the same people responsible for the USA having the highest percentage of its population incarcerated. News coverage of both sides of the problem simply does not exist. Might have something to do with payoffs? Nahhh. Moralists do not take payoffs. Wink wink.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Its sometimes pointless to bring up figures without something to compare them to.
To put things into perspective, the much mentioned Mexico figure of “42,000 deaths in the last 5 years”, although tragic, can easily be compared to the number of murders in the US in the same 5 year period (2006 to 2010), which is 80,548 according to a couple of simple internet searches.

Posted by SDDaniel | Report as abusive

Since when is reporting about giving your bias opinion? If you lived near the border or in an illegal heavy area you might understand Mr. Debusmann. We just had a drunk driving illegal crash on our street. That could have been my family he hit. Please don’t try and educate us from your safe heaven where you live. It’s a crime to enter the country illegaly………………..end of story. These people also cost the United States billions of dollars a year. Take off your liberal hat and think about our citizens first PLEASE!

Posted by TonyGwynn | Report as abusive

Come live in the town I live in and you will change your tune quickly.

Posted by TonyGwynn | Report as abusive

Of course safest. Customs and police are at every corner.

Posted by Yamayoko | Report as abusive

Can the U.S. make it’s borders impenetrable? Probably not. Can we make bring drugs, etc. across our border unprofitable? You bet!

All it takes is a national consensus to do so with appropriate funding, and it will create jobs! We also need to establish advance legal determination that drug cartel people will be presumed to be enemy combatants and treated as such if they are in this country illegally and/or if they so much as jaywalk while here.

Do it with people from National Security Agency, Border Patrol and ATF, satellite and blimp surveillance and predators. Install tight mine fields a half mile + “in-country” from the fence maintenance road. Put Arizona’s Sheriff Joe in charge with full responsibility.

It’s a lot cheaper and simpler to do a proper job keeping these things out of the U.S. than finding them and dealing with them once they’re here.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Dear OneOfTheSheep: Albert Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. By that definition, your suggestion is in need of psychiatric assistance.

Can we make “bring drugs, etc., across our border unprofitable,” as you put it? In decades of trying and who knows how many billions of dollars spent on interdiction, drug education and incarceration along with serious erosion of American civil rights, the drug cartels still seem to be making money in staggering quantities. And yet, you suggest more of the same with the twist of adding a minefield, which IMHO, tips your idea over the line separating dementia from psychosis. Mining U.S. soil (the Mexican government certainly won’t allow us to mine theirs) as part of a civilian operation with a non-military goal is a political minefield all its own.

Treating cartel members as enemy combatants requires that we observe the Geneva conventions and treat them as prisoners of war, not criminals. But perhaps you were hoping for another Guantanamo or some more waterboarding? What a good idea! But we should be prepared for reprisals against American civilians, just as has happened with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

You want a national consensus? Okay, then we should legalize drugs because we want them, we like them and we are perfectly happy to risk prison to get them. Thousands of people was willing to risk prison, or even death, to supply us. They’re part of our culture; our last three Presidents have used drugs along with heaven knows how many other politicians, civic and business leaders.

Appropriate funding? Federal, state and local governments currently spend about $54 billion a year in the war on drugs including the cost of citing or arresting and prosecuting more than a million Americans annually for violations of drug laws.

BATFE (it hasn’t been ATF in years) is already in trouble for operations like “Fast & Furious.” It was so badly bungled that a Border Patrol agent was murdered with a gun that BATFE had been responsible for shipping south of the border.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s reputation is far larger than his reality. Studies have shown him to be no more effective that other county sheriffs in terms of recidivism or general law enforcement.

So I’ll happily take your bet and begin planning what to do with my winnings. Those who won’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it and, consequently, lose wagers based on their ignorance.

Posted by TexasBill | Report as abusive

With all due respect to the two generals, when all you know how to do is drive nails all the solutions to the problems that you right about look like nails, when in fact that might be something completely different. A para military solution from a group retired military officers, how novel, refreshing, and different. One thing that I have learned about consultants is that they want that follow on contract.

I guess the Commissioner of Agriculture for the State of Texas is trying to form an army, why else would his office commissioned such a group to generate this report. Hey is this not the office Rick Perry held before he ran for Governor of Texas?

Given that the Commissioner is running for the Lieutenant Governor it really forward looking on his part that he would use state funds to have this document produced to inform the citizens of the Clear and Present Danger that Mexico (it inability to control it border, and drug gangs) presents to the citizens of State of Texas.

That is just so special.

Posted by nemo999 | Report as abusive

[…] by on October 21, 2011 Hello there! If you are new here, you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed for updates on this topic.Powered by WP Greet Box The stark contrast between the two versions speaks volumes about the war of words generated by the issues of immigration and border security during an election campaign. Most of the Republican presidential hopefuls have … Go here to see the original:  The U.S. border and immigration reform – Reuters […]

Posted by The U.S. border and immigration reform – Reuters | Report as abusive

Its sometimes pointless to bring up figures without something to compare them to.
To put things into perspective, the much mentioned Mexico figure of “42,000 deaths in the last 5 years”, although tragic, can easily be compared to the number of murders in the US in the same 5 year period (2006 to 2010), which is 80,548 according to a couple of simple internet searches.

Now it turns into a more meaningful number, and makes us question our own security instead of someone else’s.

Posted by SDDaniel | Report as abusive


Criticism without suggestions for improvement is a waste of everyone’s time. Suggestions don’t have to be perfect just as solutions don’t have to be perfect. They do, however, usually come from those willing to think. Taking your “points” one at a time:

The Einstein quote is a favority of mine, here misapplied. Yes, securing America’s borders is desired by all; and yes, it has yet to be achieved. When thousands of uneducated incompetent illegals just stroll into the U.S. year after year, those who would do this country serious harm also have virtually unhindered access also. If you think that’s acceptable, you’re an 1D10T.

Yes, the drug cartels still seem to be making money”. Will they go away if America abandons efforts to secure it’s borders? I think not; so, as the remaining option I suggest we “get serious” about it. I find your objection cause to question your motive(s).

Mining U.S. soil a political minefield? The Israelis have an identical problem. They use mines and walls very effectively. They also do a better, less intrusive job of achieving airline security because they don’t pay as much lip service to being “politically correct”. I think we could learn a lot from Isreali methods. Nobody promised easy, because if it was, these problems would already be solved.

The Geneva Convention does not protect those of an invading army in civilian clothes. Spies and saboteurs can be summarily shot. Reprisals against American civilians? Any American civilian that goes into a war zone is “on their own” and always has been. Think “personal choice, responsibility”.

You suggest because many of the American underslass want, like and would risk prison to get illegal drugs, these things ahould be embraced and accepted as “part of our culture”? I don’t think so, any more than the last century accepted the existance and “ways” of the Thugs (look it up).

The money presently spent on the “war on drugs”, like many federal programs, is more than enough to do the job at hand; but is poorly prioritized and incompetently utilized. When you’re on the wrong track, going faster is easier but doesn’t get you where you need to be. I would support using our military in the “war on drugs”, but those involved in the “war on poverty” might object.

Finally, I said “You bet”. The America you advocate would be a nation of losers. The America I advocate will be a nation of winners. “We, the people” will ultimately choose. That’s the “American way”. Get used to it!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

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