Immigration Reform 2013: Push For Reform Ignores 6,000 Miles Of Vulnerability

While the recent disputes over immigration reform have many people focused on the flow of people across states like Arizona and Texas, we must make sure to remember both the northern and the southern borders of the U.S. to insure real border control. As Congress and the president push for new legislative measures, they would do well to remember the history of immigration in the U.S. and why people come here. They should focus their efforts on stopping terrorism and smuggling.

Why does America's history with immigration matter?

The Page Act of 1875 was the first federal immigration law and prohibited the entry of immigrants considered "undesirable." By passing the Page Act, Congress intended to put an "end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.” The Immigration Act of 1903 closed America’s borders to anarchists, epileptics, beggars, and pimps. The rest of the early 1900s immigration control legislation mostly centered on controlling the flow of Asians into America, especially as the nation grow closer to the Great Depression. In 1921, Congress approved the Emergency Quota Act, which restricted the number of immigrants admitted to America from any other country to 3% of the number of residents from said country living in the United States as of the 1910 census. 1965 brought about the first restriction on Mexican-born immigrants.

During the booming 1980s, America welcomed immigrants. In 1986, President Reagan signed legislation providing a path to citizenship. Four years later, Regan increased the number of immigrants allowed in America annually by 200,000 and removed homosexuality as a reason to deny an immigrant entrance. Today, according to the Pew Institute, 13% of people living in America are immigrants. We rank behind Ireland (14%), Canada (19%) and far behind Israel (40%). All of whom, incidentally, are thriving economically.

One can surmise that the desire to control the flow of immigrants is directly related to the economy. Because about 30% of America’s immigrant population are born in Mexico, it is easy to stop there, but the data shows a clear picture. The southern border is only about 30% of the story. If America is serious about controlling our borders, taxpayers are going to have to come up the big bucks.

First, let’s talk jobs. There are about 3 million migrant seasonal farm workers in America. 74% of them are born in Mexico, Central or South America. On average, they earn $13,000 per year. On average, in America, Latino men earn just over $22,000 per year, while Latino women earn just over $16,000 annually. In Mexico, on average, a person earns $11,100 per year. You’d move for a raise of that magnitude too.

There are serious reasons to be worried about our borders; reasons that don’t have anything to do with the jobs Americans don’t want; reasons that won’t ebb and flow with the next economic disaster or economic boom. We keep our borders safe because terrorism is real. We keep our borders safe because smuggling is real. So let’s get real, too.

The southern border is 1,970 miles long. It crosses four states. There are over 20,000 agents stationed there, which is about 10 per mile.The 4,000 mile northern border is protected by 2,069 agents, or about one agent for every two miles. In addition to a workforce of over 20,000 agents, America deploys vehicles, aircraft, watercraft, and countless technological advancements to our borders. In total, there are 8,000 miles worth of border along Mexico, Canada, Florida, Puerto Rico and other coastal waters. U.S. Customs and Border Protection's budget nearly doubled to $11.7 billion in 2012 from $6.3 billion in 2005. Appropriations specifically for border patrol agents has grown by 238% since 2000 ($1.06 billion) to 2011($3.58 billion).

According to a report made to Congress, the difference in northern and southern strategies is “due to the enormity of the northern border, its varied and challenging geography, and the general lack of large American population centers along the border.” Yet the 9/11 Commission highlighted its concern that terrorists may attempt to infiltrate the United States along the sparsely defended northern border. The report clearly states that prior to the terrorist attacks, the northern border received very little attention from Congress or the White House “despite examples of terrorists entering from Canada, awareness of terrorist activity in Canada and its more lenient immigration laws.”

Let us pause here to be clear. Beginning in 1997, the 19 hijackers submitted and received legal approval to enter this country. All applications were incomplete, and three included fraudulent statements that could have been proven fraudulent at the time of application. Six violated immigration laws while they were here. All of this would have been caught if Congress had not just mandated but also appropriated US-VISIT. The new system, designed to detect fraud and identify people who have overstayed their visa, was not funded until a year after the terrorist gained entrance into America. All of the hijackers flew directly into American airports and didn’t cross any land borders.

Now, back to the second reason why border security matters: smuggling. Things come and go over our borders that hurt usspiritually, economically, morally and physically. Drugs. Guns. Counterfeit products. Humans. They all flow too freely over our borders, all of them.

Speaking of “all of them,' there are over 300 sea and river ports in America with over six million cargo containers moving in and out of them. According to U.S. Customs, “cargo containers represent the largest area of concern in terms of security and vulnerability.” The largest obstacle to overcome with cargo and port security is cost. With its $97.5 million budget, U.S. Customs can only afford to inspect 2% of those six million containers.

There are real reasons to control our borders, including terrorism and smuggling, and they are good reasons to have a real knock-down, drag-out, good old fashioned American fight. It is not, however, in the best interest of a modern America to center this policy debate on people who are willing to risk everything for a better life. If we do, we will continue to ignore 6,000 miles of vulnerability.