Even as the Obama administration plans to challenge and undermine Arizona's new immigration law, the White House still wants state residents to know that it feels their pain. "It's really a cry of frustration from Arizona," Homeland Security Secretary -- and former Arizona governor -- Janet Napolitano said recently. "It's a frustration ultimately that will only be solved with comprehensive immigration reform."
But for the majority of Arizonans, the source of frustration is not the absence of comprehensive reform. It is the federal government's halfhearted enforcement of the nation's immigration laws. And what is seldom discussed in the current controversy is how little -- in relative terms -- better enforcement would cost.
On April 19, the same day the Arizona Legislature passed the immigration measure, the state's two Republican senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, unveiled a new plan to secure the U.S. border with Mexico. It's a combination of completing and improving the border fence, adding new Border Patrol agents, expanding a policy of briefly jailing illegal border crossers and several other programs already in existence. Although there is not yet an estimate of how much it would cost, the price would be vastly less than the sums going to bailouts, the stimulus and the planned national healthcare system.
"When you are talking about national security and laying the foundation for comprehensive immigration reform, it's a relatively small investment," says Kyl.
Start with the fence. The Secure Fence Act, passed by Congress in 2006, specified 700 miles of the Southwest border to be secured with double-layered, reinforced fencing and other physical barriers. The Customs and Border Protection agency says 646 miles of fencing have been finished. For them, the job is essentially done.
But it's not, and the situation in Arizona shows why. The state's border with Mexico is 375 miles long. As it stands today, there are 123 miles of pedestrian fence, that is, high fence meant to stop people from climbing over. However, all but 10 miles of that is single-layered fence, which is easier to cut and get through than a double-layered fence, especially one with a road or other space between the barriers.
In addition, there are 182 miles of vehicle fencing -- bollards or steel beams designed to stop smugglers in cars and trucks. But illegals can easily climb over these, and sometimes smugglers can drive over them using their own ramps.
The Kyl-McCain plan would require double- and even triple-layer fencing in several areas of the border and beefed-up barriers in others. "According to the Border Patrol, it would have a very significant positive effect," McCain says. "Just as it has had a positive effect in San Diego and Texas."
How much would it cost? Given that much of the basic structure already exists, perhaps $1 million per mile. Revamp the whole 700 miles, and it's $700 million.
Kyl and McCain would add 3,000 new Border Patrol agents. A back-of-the-envelope cost estimate is about $100 million per 1,000 new agents, so the plan would cost about $300 million. The proposal also calls for hiring more U.S. marshals, clerks and administrative staff, which would mean more costs.
Then there is the jailing program, called Operation Streamline, which sends all illegal crossers to jail for a period of 15 to 60 days. When it has been tried selected areas, it has caused the illegal crossing rates to plummet. "Very effective," says McCain. "A huge deterrent," says Kyl.
The senators are waiting for an estimate of how much a bigger an expanded Operation Streamline would cost, but so far, the Obama administration has not come up with a number.
There are other expenses. For example, McCain and Kyl want to send a few thousand National Guard troops to the border. When this was done in 2007 and 2008, it cost a total of $1 billion.
There is little doubt such moves would work. In one part of the Arizona-Mexico border where authorities installed double-layered fencing and implemented Operation Streamline, the yearly number of illegal crossers went from 118,000 to 8,000.
Total cost? It's hard to say, but it seems fair to guess that for a relatively low price -- perhaps $5 billion? -- the nation could radically increase the security of the Southwest border. The columnist George Will recently called the cost of securing the border "a rounding error on the ($50 billion) GM bailout." He's right.
As Kyl and McCain see it, Napolitano has things totally turned around. Today's problem won't be solved by comprehensive immigration reform. Instead, solving the problem would make comprehensive reform possible -- and a bargain, too.