How to Secure the Border
Step one: Let’s examine our own insecurities.
On Friday, I wrote that the national conversation about our southern border has never been more derisible. Statistics show El Paso to be one of the safest cities of its size in the country, and as has consistently been the case in my experiences with the city, it was strikingly pleasant and friendly when I visited there over the weekend. I also strolled over to Juárez and was struck by how much it’s changed since my last visit, a couple of years ago, both in terms of the spiffed-up infrastructure and the number of people out and about in the early evening.
And yet the discourse somehow deteriorated even further over the weekend with the release of Donald Trump’s “policy proposal”, his first, on immigration. Trump’s plan received a rapturous reception from Ann Coulter, who tweeted:
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) August 16, 2015
That should tell you everything you need to know about the idea’s merits, but Trump’s announcement also elicited a copycat reaction from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who told Iowans this morning that his own proposal is “very similar” to Trump’s, and that he too dreams of a 2,000-mile-long wall. So does Ohio Governor John Kasich, who said during the first Republican debate that people want to see one built, which seems to be true. Even more ominously, half a dozen candidates have seconded Trump’s call to end birthright citizenship.
For my own part, though, I want these people to stop embarrassing our country. That’s probably a futile request when it comes to Trump (or Coulter), but I’ll try. In addition to being racist, nativist, illogical, and sinisterly dishonest, it would actually be counterproductive to America’s economic interests. Trump is effectively calling for a massive expansion in government spending to create a border security apparatus that would necessarily constrict commerce, trade, and production sharing with Mexico. A Keynesian absolutist might see the appeal, but I think the costs would easily outweigh the benefits.
And since it would have similarly adverse effects on Mexico’s economy, Trump’s plan would potentially make the border less secure than it currently is. That’s assuming, of course, that you think unauthorized immigrants constitute an inherent security risk; I don’t, but Trump obviously does. The United States and Mexico share the world’s longest land border between an industrialized nation and a developing one. The economic disparity between the countries creates an incentive for Mexicans to migrate to the United States and the physical proximity makes it feasible for them to do so. That’s why slightly more than half of the unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States–about 11.3 million, according to the Pew Research Center–are from Mexico, and why migration flows from Mexico has proven more responsive to economic conditions (in either country) than to labor laws or border fences.
This is classical economics, not politics. As most Texans can confirm the same dynamic often emerges in response to economic disjuncts between states.
Incidentally, if we could take the number of unauthorized immigrants in the country as a proxy for the security of the border, the metric would suggest that the border is apparently pretty secure: the undocumented population peaked at around 12m several years ago, and has subsequently stabilized at the current figure. Clearly, people aren’t crossing to and fro as freely or merrily as certain voices on the right would have us believe.
But ultimately the metric is not a good proxy: unauthorized immigration to the United States is best interpreted with reference to labor markets, rather than law enforcement. But good metrics are hard to come by. Some, like the aggregated law enforcement data reported by DPS, are unduly imprecise. Others are unhelpfully ambiguous. At the Texas Lyceum’s meeting, I took note of the point that El Paso’s courts have seen an uptick in prosecutions for illegal re-entry. But does that means that illegal re-entry is on the rise, as opposed to prosecutions for that specific violation?
And all the available metrics suffer from the absence of standards, or even a coherent concept of what “border security” looks like in practice. For some Americans, it would obviously mean an end to human trafficking, drug smuggling, illegal migration, and so on. That’s not an unreasonable instinct: Since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia brought an end to the Thirty Years’ War with an international redistricting agreement, the world has been generally committed to the Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states. The United States has a legitimate interest in secure borders and rule of law, including immigration law, as does Mexico, which is why unauthorized migrants from Central America apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley aren’t sent back to the other bank of the river.
But perfection is an unreasonable policy goal, because it’s manifestly unrealistic. Again, we’re talking about a 2,000-mile long land border. In El Paso and Juarez the border is actually physically mutable, since the dividing line is the Rio Grande, and rivers sometimes move. The same pesky market dynamics enable a tremendous amount of legal activity that is generally deemed salutary, to say nothing of the noncommercial relations between residents on either side, which are obviously valued, even if they’re not quantified. We can’t shut down the border without shutting down the border, and that’s not in anyone’s interests. Our goal should be finding the appropriate balance between securing the border and strangling it.
At the moment, we’re erring too far in the latter direction. It’s irresponsible to talk about “spillover violence”, for example, without considering the collateral damage of that kind of rhetoric. I saw an example of that Friday afternoon, when I stopped in to see Beto O’Rourke, who represents El Paso in Congress. He has historically been outspoken in his enthusiasm for not just the city but the binational community, and recently responded to Trump’s fundamentally disingenuous and dreary premise–”Make America Great Again”–with a hat-based slogan of his own: “The Border Makes America Great”. On Friday, however, O’Rourke was manifestly preoccupied with veterans’ health care, and specifically the difficulty of accessing high-quality mental health care through the VA system. The problem is not specific to El Paso, nor were most of the obstacles he cited in recounting his efforts thus far. But the problem is especially pronounced in El Paso, and as O’Rourke put it, sensationalism about conditions on the border probably haven’t made his personal efforts to recruit qualified professionals any easier. There’s probably something to that, but regardless, it’s not just veterans in El Paso who are potentially being hurt by the hyperbole; there’s one guy in Congress who has made their access to mental health care his top priority, and he happens to represent a district that’s been dragooned by the Donald.
The next day I ran across this op-ed by Ben Carson which, oddly, points to a potential path forward:
But the major factor in how my life has turned out was — and is — my attitude and ability to choose the object of my concentration.
My views on race in this country start from that perspective. While I advocate for a colorblind society, I am by no means blind to the reality of racism. But again it comes down to a matter of focus. I believe that if we focus on what divides us rather than what unites us, we impede our ability to transcend differences and work together constructively toward a better future for all Americans.
Sharing a border has advantages as well as risks; we can choose which to emphasize without ignoring the other. I think Americans should side with O’Rourke’s sanguine perspective on border security. His views on the subject are far more well-founded than Trump’s, and his attitude is the one that works in our favor. Globalization is disruptive, and has its discontents, but as former Dallas Fed CEO Richard Fisher once told me, this is the world we fought for; this is the world we won. Plus, it’s not like we’re neighbors with Libya. Mexico has its share of struggles, but we have an actual Trump.