Roman Catholic Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, hurled a stinging criticism last week at the provision in the immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. House that calls for building 700 miles of double fencing -- together with "roads, lighting, cameras and sensors" -- along five stretches of the nearly 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexican border.
"When I think of walls, I think of the Berlin Wall," Sheehan said on Feb. 26, according to the Albuquerque Journal. "I think of it as a very hostile act."
The archbishop is not the first person to liken the proposed fencing to the Berlin Wall and to treat it as a hostile act. Leaders of the Mexican government have done so, too.
"What is not resolved by intelligent policies and by leaders is resolved by citizens. That is how the Berlin Wall fell, and that is how this wall will fall," said Mexican President Vicente Fox in January, according to The Washington Times. "I hope it isn't even built because, if it is, it will fall."
Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez declared in December, "Mexico is not going to bear, it is not going to permit, and it will not allow a stupid thing like this wall."
Now, if you were looking for "hostile acts," here would be two: the Mexican president intimating he would like to see the destruction of a proposed public structure in a neighboring republic, and his foreign secretary declaring that Mexico will not permit the neighboring republic to build it in the first place.
But the purpose of this column is not to examine the legitimacy of Mexico's border polices. It is to examine the legitimacy of a specific policy already passed by the U.S. House.
Is it right or wrong for the United States to build 700 miles of fence on our border? Should the Senate approve what the House has done?
Antonio Garza, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, has already aptly rebutted the inapt comparison of U.S. border fencing to the Berlin Wall. "One cannot responsibly equate the acts of tyrants to those of free people," Garza wrote in a Jan. 13 embassy newsletter. "Think about it. Does anyone honestly remember waves of people climbing over the Berlin Wall heading east?"
But Archbishop Sheehan's criticism -- and the Conference of Catholic Bishops' criticism of U.S. border enforcement in general -- runs deeper than a single bad analogy. It is spelled out most fully in "Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope," a pastoral letter jointly published in 2003 by the Catholic bishops of the United States and Mexico.
Yet, the bishops' argument suggests a conundrum. Citing the post-9/11 terror threat, the bishops call for "thorough checks" of border crossers. "Certain security actions are a necessary response to credible terrorist threats, such as improved intelligence sharing and screening, enhanced visa and passport security, and thorough checks at the United States-Mexico border," they wrote.
Then, however, they criticized U.S. "border-blockade initiatives" that, with the "tripling of Border Patrol agents," "reinforced fencing" and other resources, have largely curtailed illegal entry into the United States along certain sections of border. "Rather than significantly reducing illegal crossings, the initiatives have instead driven migrants into remote and dangerous areas of the Southwest region of the United States, leading to an alarming number of migrant deaths," say the bishops.
So, here is the moral dilemma: On the one hand, if we leave the border open and fail to do "thorough checks" on the masses crossing illegally, we leave our country open to terrorists who could murder many thousands of people. On the other hand, if we block only certain sections of the border, we direct illegal alien traffic toward other sections, where their lives may be at risk.
How can we optimize both the security of our country and the safety of would-be illegal immigrants to the United States?
We can do something that may be politically incorrect, but that occupies high moral ground: blockade the entire border. Build a double border fence all the way from San Ysidro to Brownsville, and patrol it well. Where geography prevents construction of a physical fence, deploy other resources in sufficient number to shut down illegal crossings.
Surely, a nation that can build cruise missiles and stealth planes can master the old-fashioned civil engineering to build -- not a wall -- but a very good fence between nations that ought to be very good neighbors (President Fox's and Secretary Derbez's absurd rhetoric notwithstanding).
Then, when our border is secure, we can have a national debate about crafting new immigration rules that can be enforced with all the vigor just laws deserve.