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.