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.

OBAMA IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF BUSH
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.

352 comments

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It amazes me that we are a capitalist country and so many of our uneducated citizens dont understand supply and demand. If there is demand for low cost labor then the workers and jobs will match at the right price point – its as simple as that. If we somehow fence the border, the market will still attract labor – it might be from tourist visa’s, it might be US underage children, it might be sending the jobs overseas. If it ends up costing more to pick strawberries than selling them then might as well grow them in Thailand. We are a nation based on trade and economics teaches us that the best system is free movement of products, capital and labor. A system to allow Mexicans to come in to be our low cost jobs protects us in the long term from losing thousands of more jobs to India, China, Brazil, etc, etc.

Its already happening; In my area, a local New York Jewish market used to buy from a plant in Iowa which had a lot of Mexican labor. The whole process created a lot of tax money for this small town in Iowa. I’ve just learned due to INS crackdowns, the cooperative is now sourcing Kosher products from Israel and China. This will be happen over and over as the cost for unsubsidized agriculture and meat processing becomes too high. We will in the end only produce subsidized food like corn or sugar which of course increases our national debt. Great – lost jobs, no tax, more subsidies, and lots of corn.

Sometimes I wish these people actually get what they wish for – at least urban economies are diversified enough to where we dont have to worry about sourcing food from abroad – it would only hurt the agricultural area’s of the country.

Posted by John2244 | Report as abusive

Read about “operation wetback”. It’s been done before, we badly need to do it again. No argument.

Posted by Hammer1966 | Report as abusive

John2244 wrote:

“It amazes me that we are a capitalist country and so many of our uneducated citizens dont understand supply and demand. If there is demand for low cost labor then the workers and jobs will match at the right price point – its as simple as that.”

It amazes me that so many people like John2244 think that they understand supply and demand.

“If there is demand for low cost labor” — then the price still depends on the supply of labor as well.

If the supply is effectively restricted by immigration enforcement, then it will no longer be “low cost labor.” Those workers will earn a decent living. That is (in my mind, at least) the purpose of immigration enforcement.

If we do not have effective immigration enforcement and we have an unlimited supply of impoverished workers coming here, desperate for work, then that is the REASON THAT WE HAVE LOW COST LABOR. It keeps American workers in poverty too. That is the reason that the Chamber of Commerce wants open borders — so that they can be richer by making their employees poorer.

If you understand supply and demand, you can understand the immigration debate. If you are John 2244, you just think you understand supply and demand.

Posted by Mr.Anonymous | Report as abusive

B.D. writes: “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.”

Correction: the Republicans, after quite a bit of push from Dubya, passed the bill. It was the Democrats who first said yes, then killed it because the elections were close and they didn’t want Republicans to take all the glory.

Posted by shqipo | Report as abusive

“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”

Those who would harm us? How’d you manage to slide that phrase into the discussion, Gordon2352? Do you honestly believe that illegal immigrants are terrorists at heart?

Quit spouting hate and get a real life. You would probably enjoy walking around without all those painful paranoid delusions.

Posted by dratman | Report as abusive

jayinlosangles left out a comma.
bobby99

Posted by BOBBY99 | Report as abusive

It’s a given that Bush, Napolitano and Obama are correct in calling for a complete rethink but it’s either naivety or hubris to suppose this was not done many times before.
What the French did: Decades ago the French accepted they had innundations of Spanish etc emigre’ transients and laborers, over whom they had effectively no control. Franco made sure the flow continued, regardless. The solution was to issue emigre’ transients with Identity Papers. These Papers of Passage were not true Passports but did accurately identify the Holder and established that Identity had been confirmed in FRANCE! Voila! Why not issue all those Latino laborers, servants and etc., with Papers of Passage. ID holders, anywhere, contribute to the labor force, taxes, consumerism and the like.
Nominal and customary screening would apply as it always does – criminal history etc.
They remain forever citizens of their country of Origin but have Universally acceptable Papers for Identification purposes. Those subsequently seeking Citizenship in ANY country must still apply, as any foreign national must, through the normal chanels.
We live in a Global Community “Honey! I shrunk the World!”
France was forced for a while to think outside the box. I knew Spanish girls with French papers working in London legally as au pairs (sp) in the 60s.
The Principle could be readilly redefined and shaped for USA application and subsequently Global Application – so these can skill themselves and ‘move on’.
The title Emigre’ is nothing to be ashamed of.
Those of us who refuse to emigrate stand in the two-way shooting gallery, right?
Guran Walker

Posted by guranw | Report as abusive

The debate about immigration is pointless without the bigger context of a population policy. What size population do policy-makers and economists believe would best serve the U.S.? Should we have 1.2 billion people like China or India? Should we have 9 billion people, raising our density to that of Bangladesh? Will that improve our economy, reduce unemployment, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and help to cut our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050? If so, then let’s throw the borders open, let everyone in and get it over with.

If, on the other hand, we’d be better-served with a population stabilized at a sustainable level, then we need to make immediate and large cuts to both legal and illegal immigration, reducing overall immigration to the rate of emigration, removing immigration as a factor in population growth.

Posted by Pete_Murphy | Report as abusive

The border can be controlled and illegal immigration and the flow of illegal goods (like drugs) must be stopped. Only someone in favor of illegal immigration would say it cannot be stopped. The border crossings themselves are the problem – there are companies with permission granted to NOT have their shipments inspected when moving back and forth across the border. These are the shipments where the bulk of illegal activity is taking place – so – it is not that the border cannot be controlled – it is that it is NOT being controlled. Pay a fee – get a pass.

Posted by cranston | Report as abusive

shqipo: The most vocal opposition to Bush’s comprehensive reform came from Republicans crying “asylum.” In the Senate vote on June 28,2007, that sank the bill, only 12 (out of 49) Republican senators sided with Bush.

Posted by BDebusmann | Report as abusive

it would indeed be possible to Deport the entire illegal population within the united states …

First of all , there’s no magic rush where we have to round up everyone in 24 hours …

The plan would go something like this … first we would instutie SB 1070 all over the nation , then we would require new national ID cards that can’t be faked or stolen … Next we strongly enforce employer sanction laws …then we end anchor baby citizenship ..cut off ALL welfare benfits , and arrest anyone in a local E.R after they have gotten treatment if their in the country illegally … these measures alone would most likely drive out half of the illegal population , say 10 million …After that we could hunt down and deport 1 million people a year for ten years and then our problem is solved .

Posted by marquis | Report as abusive

I think the most surprising thing in this article is Bernd’s implication he thinks Obama will only get one term. If he was going to be in office for 8 years, lack of action in the first year and a half wouldn’t be such an issue.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

All the current debate concerning immigration often makes reference to ‘the problem of…’. There does exist many legal and existing channels to be in America for many reasons, including work. Obviously America has more opportunity for individuals than many other countries, more ‘bang for your buck’ if you will and it is why my wife and I moved here in 1995. We have been fingerprinted, photographed and are required to carry current documentation at all times that is only renewed by our being present outside of the U.S. each time in order to be readmitted. The total cost incurred is major, from actual to loss of business while away but IT IS THE LAW.
Unfortunately despite our having fulfilled all civic duties and responsibilities it is virtually impossible for us to petition the government for residence status. Furthermore all the current propositions seem to lean only towards those that are illegal. Therefore does my wife and I have to allow our Visas to run out in order to be allowed to get full immigrant status?
Now we are the problem people as we don’t believe in breaking the law. Are there any politicians out there that favour the small businesses run by foreigners. After all both parties tout small business as the backbone of America and we too are bringing skills and a willingness to work otherwise we would not have brought ourselves and assets here nor would have been allowed to by the U.S. government unless we could prove we qualified.
So what hope is there for us and other legal entities that have built up a business here? More of the same?

Posted by I.Kennedy | Report as abusive

All the current debates concerning immigration often makes reference to ‘the problem of…’. There does exist many legal and existing channels to be in America for many reasons, including work. Obviously America has more opportunity for individuals than many other countries, more ‘bang for your buck’ if you will and it is why my wife and I moved here in 1995. We have been fingerprinted, photographed and are required to carry current documentation at all times that is only renewed by our being present outside of the U.S. each time in order to be readmitted. The total cost incurred is major, from actual to loss of business while away but IT IS THE LAW.
Unfortunately despite our having fulfilled all civic duties and responsibilities it is virtually impossible for us to petition the government for residence status. Furthermore all the current propositions seem to lean only towards those that are illegal. Therefore does my wife and I have to allow our Visas to run out in order to be allowed to try for full immigrant status?
Now we are the problem people as we don’t believe in breaking the law. Are there any politicians out there that favour the small businesses run by foreigners. After all both parties tout small business as the backbone of America and we too are bringing skills and a willingness to work otherwise we would not have brought ourselves and assets here nor would we have been allowed to by the U.S. government unless we could prove we qualified. It is a stringent process each time.
So what hope is there for us and other legal entities that have built up a business here? More of the same?

Posted by I.Kennedy | Report as abusive

Tomorrow is the 66 anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 1944.
Allied troops had landed on beaches of Normandy in France to put an end to Nazi occupied Europe. The free
world depended on the valor and courage of thousands allied soldiers to do their duty and perhaps sacrifice their lives. We need to ask ourselves where will the
next generations of soldiers come from willingly to
sacrifice their lives for the sake of freedom. Those
brave American soldiers of Woral War II were the sons
and daughters of the first and second generation of
the immigrants who came through Ellis Island in New York
during great migration to this country. The only thing
those immigrants had to do was buy a ticket on a boat and
arrive on the shores of New York City. Once here they
were processed, registered and allow to enter USA as legal citizens without taxes, fees or penalties. Now
we have the technology and know-how to document the
illegal immigrant who has over-stayed his or her visa,
enter the country illegally, etc. And guess what the illegals are paying taxes, contributing to the economy, as consumers and in some cases allowed to enlist in the
military. This is a great country for many reasons
but immigration has been the main contributing factor
which added the diversity of people and their culture
to the American society which we know and enjoy today.
Perhaps there may be another Albert Einstein who was born in Germany and emigrated to USA in 1933, among those 12 or 15 millions illegals currently residing in
this country and waiting to make a contribution. We
need to recognize that a close society offers no growth toward peaceful innovation or economic prosperity.
Immigration and manufacturing is what made this country the greatest developed nation in the world.

Posted by CUNY | Report as abusive

For the nth time, folks, it ain’t 12 million. It’s well over twice that.

As for the futility of a wall, I agree. Land mines, drones and gunships would do much better. Bring the troops home, and put them where they’re really needed.

Posted by Mega | Report as abusive

Illegal aliens issues will decline as income taxes go up. e.g. – There are few illegal aliens in Canada as high taxes do not make it worth the while for an employer to pay someone illegally without being able to claim the tax break.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

It’s easy enough to get these illegals to deport themselves. Stop providing them with gov benefits. The 14th amendment clearly states that children born on US soil to foreign visitors are exempt. Enforce the 14th amendment and stop giving citizenship to anchor babies, that qualify illegals for welfare, free medical, food stamps and sec 8 housing. Stop allowing illegals into our gov funded colleges. Implement a system that verifies legal work status and fine the companies that hire undocumented workers. Create seasonal contracts for immigrants where their labor is in our best interest. They will stop invading us and go home if we stop with the anchor baby welfare and jobs.

Posted by Cindy1000 | Report as abusive

Who cares how far the busses will stretch? The illegals would stretch 11,450 miles if placed end to end, assuming an average illegal is 5’6″… Whatever! I do not want to pay for them!

Posted by djrich1944 | Report as abusive

I am surprised to find that jborrow thinks of BHusseinO as a conservative democrat. I’d hate to see his/her version of a liberal democrat. And it seems that edgyinchina thinks opinions can be color coded. I agree with cindy1000 and djrich1944. We are making it too easy for them and rewarding them for being “undocumented”. After all, who wants to leave a warm bed? Thank goodness for those like I.Kennedy who have taken a legal path into the Land of Opportunity. Our border crossers are entering under a different perspective of the same – with opportunity meaning free government handouts, including medical & educational, and all you have to do is have a baby while you are here to keep it coming in, all at the multi-colored taxpayer’s expense. And those immigrants that came through Ellis Island didn’t get the street signs relabeld in their languages. I’m sick of it.

Posted by coveredinoil | Report as abusive