George W. Obama and immigration fantasies

By Bernd Debusmann
June 4, 2010

In the waning days of his presidency, George W. Bush listed the failure of immigration reform as one of his biggest disappointments and deplored the tone of the immigration debate. It had, he said in December 2008, undermined “the true greatness of America which is that we welcome people who want to work”.

The way things look a year and a half into the administration of Barack Obama, he too may end his presidency deploring the failure to fix America’s dysfunctional immigration system. The tone of the debate is even more rancorous now than it was when Bush pushed reform and it features the same arguments, including the fantasy that you can fully control the frontier between the U.S. and Mexico, the world’s busiest border.

That illusory target was set in the Secure Fence Act of 2006, signed into law by George W. Bush on October 26 of that year. It provided a definition of the term “operational control”, one of the most frequently used buzz phrases of the debate. (The other is “securing the border”). Under the letter of the law, operational control means “the prevention of all unlawful U.S. entries, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband.”

Note the word “all”. Then contrast it with what is at stake: almost 7,500 miles of land borders (with Mexico and Canada), 12,300 miles of coastline and a vast network of airports, seaports and land crossings. In the long-running debate, sound bites alone could fill a library and one of the best came from Janet Napolitano when she was governor of Arizona: “Show me a 50-foot wall and I show you a 51-foot ladder.”

That quote has history on its side. There has never been an impenetrable border. Not the Great Wall of China, the 5,500-mile mother of all walls, not the Berlin Wall, not the Iron Curtain, the lethal system of walls, fences, minefields and watch towers manned by guards with shoot-to-kill orders that sliced 2,500 miles through Europe.

Napolitano, now head of the Department of Homeland Security, the 160,000-strong bureaucratic behemoth charged with ensuring “operational control”, no longer uses the wall-and-ladder simile. Instead, she talks of the need for “comprehensive immigration reform”, as does her boss, Barack Obama, and as did George W. Bush.

Bush’s attempt to push through a reform addressing all aspects of the complex, emotion-laden issue fell through because he could not convince legislators in his own Republican party that there should be a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States. Obama does not have enough votes in the Senate for a reform bill.

And leading Republicans insist that there must be a sequence in any changes to what everybody agrees is a broken system. “First…we have to secure the border. If you want to enact other reforms, how can that be effective when you have a porous border,” says John McCain, the Arizona senator who once championed an all-encompassing package.

He and others have not explained what exactly they mean by “secure border”. If that stands for keeping “all” illegal crossers out, it’s difficult to see how there could ever be reform. Largely symbolic gestures, such as Obama’s decision in May to send 1,200 National Guard troops to the border with Mexico, will make little difference on the ground.

By ordering the troops’ deployment, Obama trod in the footsteps of Bush, who dispatched 6,000 National Guard troops to the border in 2006 to back up the Border Patrol and help build several hundred miles of walls and fences. In both cases, the measures were meant to win bi-partisan support for overall reform.

That would need to include figuring out a way to keep track of people who enter the U.S. on valid visas and stay behind when they expire. With attention focused on the border, visa overstayers rarely figure in the debate but they are estimated to make up around 40 percent of the population of illegal immigrants.

How to handle them has been the thorniest problem of all, with conservatives decrying as “amnesty” proposals to work out a way to legal status. Public attitudes are somewhat schizophrenic, judging from opinion polls.

A poll late in May by the Opinion Research Corporation, for example, showed 80 percent in favor of a program that would allow illegal immigrants who have already lived in the U.S. for several years to apply for legal status if they had a job and paid any taxes owed. But in response to a differently-phrased question, 60 percent supported deporting illegal immigrants already in the country.

Last year, according to government figures, the U.S. deported 387,790 illegal immigrants — an average of more than 1,000 a day and a tiny fraction of the undocumented population. Wholesale deportation of all of it belongs as much in the world of fantasy as the idea that “all unlawful entries” could be stopped.

To show how unrealistic the notion of mass deportation is, the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank, crunched some numbers in a recent report on immigration. Assuming that they could all be tracked down, how many buses would it take to ferry out all illegal immigrants?

Around 200,000. Placed bumper-to-bumper, the buses would stretch 1,800 miles.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

The Great Debate» See all analysis and opinion George W. Obama and immigration fantasies
Jun 4, 2010 09:38 EDT
Bernd Debusmann | George W. Bush | immigration | Obama
What is Bernd proposed solution?
We have, if official figures are correct twelve million II’s running around in this country.
If they are all given some legal status, the probability is, their employers will import another twelve million, after all if they have no legal status they cannot sue their employer and the employer has no legal responsibility to the employee.

Posted by The1eyedman | Report as abusive

No doubt that mass deportation isn’t feasible, but then neither is turning a blind eye and knowingly assuming the burden of providing tax funded services to people who aren’t part of the tax rolls. That’s not even taking into consideration the problems created by forcing schools to offer Spanish-only curriculum or bilingual government services. Because after all, we wouldn’t want to offend the person who is here illegally. Shame on us.

Posted by Stopthemadness | Report as abusive

there’s really just one question we all have to consider: just how well did ‘the great wall of china’ work for the ‘chinese’?

it seems to have worked well enough to hold off the manchus for about 44 years. is that as long as we’d like ‘the great wall of america’ to work? no, we want something more permanent, right?

so, if we’re going to build a great wall (and i’d highly suggest it just for the jobs it would create) we should build it big! much bigger than the great wall of china! big enough for a major roadway to run across the top of it. big enough to house a number of hotels and malls with great views of the mexican desert. and long enough to stretch out into the sea for twenty miles on each end.

but, then the question becomes: who’d actually do the work on such a wall and then who’d actually keep the hotels and malls running in the wall…hmmm, now let me think: they should live within easy commuting distance and they probably shouldn’t want much more than minimum wage!

so…let’s think. who does that leave…?

oh, well, it’s just an idea.

Posted by jborrow | Report as abusive

To simply state that the US cannot control its own borders is ludicrous. We can and should. Any reasonable state must be able to do that. We simply lack the political will, not the engineering expertise.

Perhaps my memory is somewhat different than yours about the success of the Berlin wall, but it certainly seemed to deter a lot of traffic that would otherwise have simply gone through unimpeded.

Perhaps also, we might consider bringing in Israeli wall experts. They seem to have the requisite knowledge to handle the task under extremely adverse conditions.

The bottom line is your argument is not based on physical fact, but an unwillingness to do what is necessary to close our borders to those who would harm us — all for the benefit of a relatively small group of individuals in this country who benefit from keeping our borders open.

If we solve that problem first, I am sure the other will follow quite easily.


Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

another question: what would it look like to force 12,000,000 people across the border at gun point? didn’t we bomb up a country trying to do that?

Posted by jborrow | Report as abusive

I’m sure any sized wall could do the intended job, if there was enough will power in place to enforce it.

Arizona realized that BHusseinO and CORPWashDC wasn’t doing their job under our immigration laws, so they moved to correct the problem that is destroying their land, murdering their citizens, and bringing in all manner of dangerous people and items.

Good luck to Arizona. Stick to your guns (pun intended), and stop the encroachment on your land.

Posted by truesearch37 | Report as abusive

gordon…didn’t a ‘great man’ once say: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

well i say: Mr. Gordon, tear down that wall (in your mind)…because, your notion of ‘border’ is probably bereft of any deep historical consideration of how it got there and your notion of ‘political will’ is probably more a parody of the ‘triumph of the will’ of another ‘great man’ who had a willingness to do what was necessary to rid his country of “a relatively small group of individuals”. as you say: “If we solve that problem first, I am sure the other will follow quite easily.”

Posted by jborrow | Report as abusive

if any of you know the history of arizona, you’ll know why it has its current law.

“Starting in 1853, the entirety of present-day Arizona was part of the New Mexico Territory. During the Civil War, on March 16, 1861, southern New Mexico Territory around Mesilla (now in New Mexico) and Tucson declared itself independent from the United States to join the Confederacy. Confederate Territory of Arizona (CSA) was regarded as a valuable route for possible access to the Pacific Ocean, with the specific intention of joining southern California to the Confederacy (In 1860, Southern California had cleared all legal hurdles for secession from the rest of California and was waiting reorganization as a new U.S. territory, which never materialized. At that time, sparsely populated Southern California was a hotbed of Southern-sympathizers.)”
see wikipedia

Posted by jborrow | Report as abusive

to see what it looks like to expell 12,000,000 people; see the wikipeida article on: Deportation.

Posted by jborrow | Report as abusive

The US should fence and mine the strip of land it owns along the border. That should stop illegal crossings and a low chain link fence will keep animals out of the mine field.

Posted by BBJJ | Report as abusive

border security is important and the legalization for undocumented workers who have been living in this country for years or even decades is important too. The thing is that the illegal migration will not stop as long as those people will be able to get hired here. If we prevent our employers from breaking the laws by hiring those people and give certain tools to the employers who really did not realize that the person they were hiring was in the country illegally (biometric SS and IDs, E-verify etc.), than the flow of illegal migrants will stop or at least significantly slow down. I agree with the author of this article that the wall won’t stop the immigrants. There is always some way that they will be able to get to the US. To control the problem we also need a fair visa program. The recent visa program is not working properly. For example, when we bring a person from another country on H1B and this person brings wife/husband that gets H4 on which he/she can not work for several years, what do you think will happened. Of course that person will work, because who would like to be supported (especially if we are talking about man) by his/hers significant other? That unfair visa system and inability to change visa types to keep legal status and work permit, forces many immigrants to become illegal in this country. That needs to be fixed if we won’t to keep track of who is here. Without comprehensive immigration reform nothing will work. Those who are here already often come from mix-status families, and I don’t think that it would be fair and humane to deport them and ruin their lives and their families. Yes, those people broke the law, but it’s not like they killed someone. So, making them to pay back taxes, learning English, paying fine for breaking the law and giving them legal status is fair. They payed already for years by not being able to see their families often for decades, not being able to go to their parents funerals or their siblings weddings. That is the worse punishment that no one deserves. So, let’s be Americans, let’s give those people chance and let’s reform the law the way that people will not have to overstay their visas (give them chance to change their visas), will not have to jump the wall to work on a farm (give them temporary work permits and make sure that whoever hires them will be held responsible if they overstay don’t leave after work is completed). There are for sure better solution than hate, discrimination, bullying and inhumane treatment.

Posted by Amy07 | Report as abusive

obama will remain in the footsteps of bush because he is a conservative democrat, just like his good buddy and bag man: clinton. these guys are all graduates of the ‘harvard-princeton-yale club’ and they know which way their bread is buttered.

as for the rest of us. half of us are still in the thrall of the values of the ‘solid south’. the other half of us is a disorganized lot of tweedy intellectuals, socialists, gays, dopers, and basically happy and satisfied people. unfortunately, with such a split in the society at large and having only a two party system, there’s nothing that can be done, politically, to shake things up in a way that would take us down ‘a better road’.

those on the right would shake things up in such a way that we would ended up in a parody of the 1950s, with all of its comforts and looming problems. those of us on to the ‘left’ of right (or what’s left of ‘the left’) have lost our focus in a haze of good smoke and good times with good intentions. our main goal of near equal rights was achieved with losses taken in the war to end wars and war to preserve our ecology.

however, with this in mind, even though obama remains in the foothills of the bush revolution, obama has no successor.

Posted by jborrow | Report as abusive

Borders are nothing but de-liberating Big Government anachronisms, held over from feudal days for small-minded Joe The Plumber types to get excited about when they’ve run low on viagra.

Until what seriously matters is how equitably a country can function within its frontiers, it’s a delusional waste of time pretending to have any.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

hey BBJJ, i thought of a better one than mining and fensing! how bout we set off a chain of really dirty nukes along the border, thus making the land unliveable for the next, let’s say, 10,000 years. we’d only lose about 500 hundred miles of land on each side of the ‘border’. far enough back for ya?

Posted by jborrow | Report as abusive

Article 18 of the United Nations’ Draft Code of Crimes Against the Peace and Security of Mankind declares “large scale” arbitrary or forcible deportation to be a crime against humanity.

That’s from wikipedia…

Posted by Amy07 | Report as abusive

right on HBC! who knows when the next good idea will cross ‘the border’!

Posted by jborrow | Report as abusive

nice find Amy07…wish i’d known that…

Posted by jborrow | Report as abusive

It sounds like most of the ‘wall supporters’ are just uneducated white people who are loosing their grip on power, and want to return to the days when whatever a white man said, was the law…. It’s that sense of loss of power that is driving these people to hate more and more….
It’s just a repeat of the Hitler scenario of the 1930′s in Germany…. Get schooled, its educational.

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

You sound exceptionally educated edgyinchina. How about the fact that the “white man” is getting taken advantage of by the illegal immigrants crossing the border. If you’re so educated, how about you recommend a sound solution to the problem?

By the way, in the context you’re using “its educational”.. it should be it’s with the apostrophe.

Brilliant, have a nice day!

Posted by jayinlosangeles | Report as abusive

I’ve seen this argument in many similar forms for years. It’s always silly:

“Assuming that they could all be tracked down, how many buses would it take to ferry out all illegal immigrants?

Around 200,000. Placed bumper-to-bumper, the buses would stretch 1,800 miles.”

According to US Government data (not including air travel) there were almost 300 million border crossings between the U.S. and Mexico in 1999 (the peak year). If the facilities exist to move 300 million people in a normal year, then obviously the transport facilities exist to deport 4% of that. If the process were spread over 3 years, it would be the equivalent of about 1% of normal traffic.

That is the relevant metric. Such a deportation would represent a small increment of normal travel. It’s a shame that the Center for American Progress would sell such drivel and that Mr. Debusmann would buy it.

Posted by Mr.Anonymous | Report as abusive