Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 7, 2006

Border security: a humanitarian fence?

Filed under: Border Security — by Christian Beckner on June 7, 2006

Two interesting stories on immigration and border security today. First, the Washington Post published a sad frontpage story on the increasing number of deaths among attempted border crossers over the past few years, as the result of the fact that the flow of illegal immigrants has been diverted to remote, scorching hot sections of the border. Second, Slate published a column by Ha’aretz correspondent Shmuel Rosner that looks at the US-Mexico border fence proposals in the context of Israel’s fence with the Palestinian territories. He writes:

As such, the Israeli fence is very efficient. The number of fatalities from terror attacks within Israel dropped from more than 130 in 2003 to fewer than 25 in 2005. The number of bombings fell from dozens to fewer than 10. The cost for Israel is in money and personnel; the cost for Palestinians is in unemployment, health, frustration, and blood. The demographic benefit—keeping out the Palestinians—is just another positive side effect for the Israelis.

No wonder the fence is considered a good deal by those living on its western side. But applying this model to the U.S.-Mexico border will not be easy. U.S. citizens will find it hard to justify such tough measures when their only goal is to stop people coming in for work—rather than preventing them from trying to commit murder. And the cost will be more important. It’s much easier to open your wallet when someone is threatening to blow up your local cafe.

Still, some of the lessons from the Israeli experience apply. The first is one opponents don’t like to hear: A wisely planned fence is capable of preventing almost every attempt to enter a country illegally.

When Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano declares, “You show me a 50-foot wall, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border,” the answer is fairly straightforward: You show me a 51-foot ladder, and I’ll show you a guardsman standing on the other side of the wall waiting to arrest the person using it. The fence is not the only thing keeping people from entering. The fence has just two objectives: slowing the intruders and making them visible to members of the border patrol. The rest of the work is done by human beings.

The lesson I draw from these two stories is that a comprehensive border fence (together with a temporary worker program) would be an effective deterrent and preventative for illegal immigration, and by doing so would help to remedy this humanitarian disaster, in a way that other border security strategies don’t achieve. The thing that makes the border dangerous today is the fact that it’s partially controlled – making it difficult to cross but still tempting. If it were completely controlled between the points-of-entry, and their were alternative, legal means of entry, then that dangerous temptation would be likely to dissipate.

On a related note, troops from the Utah National Guard arrived this week in Arizona to begin their deployment at the border as part of “Operation Jump Start.” I still think that overall this is a subpar use of homeland security funds, but at least these particular soldiers are doing useful work on construction projects at the border.

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