Mission accomplished

Rich Tucker

9/9/2006 1:18:17 AM - Rich Tucker

No matter what the problem, lawmakers in Washington think they’ve got the solution: Spend money on it.

This trend shows up in the debate over illegal immigration. The House of Representatives and the Senate have come up with very different proposals to combat the problem, but the competing bills have at least one thing in common. Under either measure, the federal government would hire, train and deploy thousands of border patrol agents in years to come.

That would be expensive and, ultimately, wasteful.

A new paper from The Heritage Foundation estimates that “the total cost of a new Border Patrol agent is around $189,000.” That’s partially because there’s a lot of waste in the process. Almost 20 percent of those who enter the border patrol’s academy wash out, so to fill 6,000 slots, the government would need to bring almost 8,000 trainees into the school. And because only about 1 out of every 30 applicants actually completes training, “meeting the president’s goal would require about 180,000 applications in the next two years,” the paper reports.

There are other problems, of course. If the government manages to find, hire and train 6,000 new agents, they’ll become a permanent feature on the landscape. Even if illegal immigration becomes less important in years to come (as we certainly hope it will), taxpayers will be paying for these agents until they retire.

Luckily, there’s a better way to eliminate illegal immigration. Instead of simply hiring new agents, the government should use a layered approach. By getting state and local law enforcement agencies, volunteers, contractors and the National Guard involved, the government can get started right away and make significant steps toward closing our southern border to illegal immigration.

We know this layered approach will work, because it’s already working.

An e-mailer who's been working with a group of border observers for more than a year recently wrote to declare that “the border is secure.” Not the entire frontier, of course. But, he writes, his team has helped “shut down approximately five miles (2 percent) of the California border. It obviously can be done.”

How? Teamwork.

Volunteers -- regular American citizens concerned about protecting their country -- got the ball rolling. They started by reinforcing fencing along the border. “We added 20 and 50 foot sections, reinforced weak spots, immediately repaired holes, until we now have a solid secondary barrier over 2,000 yards long,” my correspondent writes.

The new fencing channels illegals into areas where they can be easily spotted and apprehended by the Border Patrol and the National Guard. Because, along with the volunteers, these federal agents are critical to ending illegal immigration. And now they’re on the scene.

The Guard “is now doing reconnaissance and reporting crossings on a 24/7/365 basis. That's right, they're out there NON-STOP (no twice-daily 2-hour shift change gaps in coverage) every day including weekends, and have been informed and told us they'll be pulling this duty around the clock until at least 2008.”

That’s also critical, because this isn’t a problem that will go away overnight (although it will go away). We need to make any potential illegals understand that we’re serious about stopping them -- not simply today but next month and next year, too. That way, more people will decide to stay put in Mexico instead of making a run for the border.

At the same time, we should be getting the states more involved. “Authorities along the border are often the first to witness immigration violations and [are] in the best position to stop illegal immigrants who are trying to enter the United States,” the Heritage paper notes. There’s already a provision -- Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act -- that allows local law-enforcement groups to work with federal forces. We simply need to move faster to ensure they’re involved.

And, in order to get more agents on the border quickly, Washington should consider hiring local security companies. That will get human resources in place quickly, without forcing the federal government to spend years recruiting and training thousands of agents.

The border can be secured, without breaking the bank.

My correspondent says his region in California now sports “a double-fence, covered by vigorous patrols and observation, taking advantage of strong citizen involvement, and augmented by deployment of federal troops with state-of-the-art thermal-imaging observation equipment, to assist the vigorous border enforcement by the Border Patrol.”

It’s taken a year, but “together, with teamwork, we've shut this zone down,” he writes.

California’s a bellwether state. Since this layered approach is working there, we know it’ll work elsewhere. Simply sealing the border won’t solve the problem of illegal immigration, but it’s a critical start. It’s time for lawmakers to make it happen.