The price of secure borders

Posted: May 17, 2006 12:05 AM

I've always found that avoiding insanity is useful in life -- which in American politics sometimes puts one in the minority. As a second proposition I would argue that when in negotiations, if he with whom you are negotiating is moving in your direction -- don't walk out of the room. As a final proposition: In politics, as in life, you can't always get what you want, but sometimes you can get what you need (with apologies to a detestable rock group who wrote those words, more or less.)

 I have in mind the immigration issue and the response of some conservatives to President Bush's speech Monday night. As a proud and outspoken member of the movement that opposes illegal immigration and residence in America, I believe the time has come to decide whether anything useful to the cause can be accomplished this year, and whether we are likely to get more by waiting until after the November election. My answer to those questions are maybe and no.

 For me, the single highest strategic objective is to secure the border for two equally important reasons. First, because in its current condition, the border is an open door for terrorists into America. It is almost inconceivable that the terrorism threat has almost completely dropped out of public consideration. The president mentioned it in one word after mentioning drug smugglers and criminals. The media seems to have ignored the topic entirely. Secondly, the border must be secured to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants to at most a trickle.

 Ultimately, this country of 300 million can absorb the current 10 to 20 million illegals in the country. It probably cannot absorb and culturally integrate the further scores of millions who inevitably will come if the border is not soon secured. Thus, for me, the central question is whether we can negotiate a sufficiently secure border. 

 The president has moved measurably, but insufficiently, toward that position. He has offered about 6,000 new Border Patrol agents. That number is insufficient by a factor of about four -- the probable need is between 20,000-30,000 agents. He has, for the first time agreed to some structural barriers and sensor technologies -- but his vagueness on the details suggests that we will have to bargain hard for substantially more than he has in mind. The 6,000 National Guardsmen that he proposed for one year in limited roles are essentially rhetorical window dressing. But if we get sufficient permanent forces, structures and technologies mandated and fully funded in law -- that will suffice.

 The other component of ending the flood is to reduce the attractions to illegal entry in the form of employer sanctions for hiring illegals and denial of social services to illegals. The latter may be unconstitutional under recent case law and is, in any event, not considered to be even plausibly passable into law. The president briefly mentioned employer sanctions, about which much more must be defined into law. The key is to have prison term penalties for CEOs of companies that hire illegals and a practical means of illegal identification available. The president's proposed biometric ID card is a good first step. Sen. Jeff Sessions has proposed a fuller method that will end employer excuses.

 If -- and it is a big if -- all of that can be gained by congressional negotiations over the next two months, the question remains whether the anti-illegal immigrant and resident movement should accept some undesirable guest worker or path to citizenship provisions -- if that is the price we have to pay for getting a secure border.

 This is where the sanity matter comes into play. Especially regarding the guest worker provision, if we pass no legislation this year, we will continue to have a de facto guest worker program with millions of new arrivals every year and no secure border. Moreover, it is inconceivable that the November election will elect a congress more amenable to our cause. The next congress will have, if anything, more Democrats. Disgruntled conservatives will have no way of strengthening the anti-illegal immigrant vote: Their choice will be a soft Republican, a bad Democrat or abstention (which in effect is the same as a bad Democrat). It would seem to me that we lose nothing by trading an otherwise inevitable de facto guest worker condition for a genuinely secure border and employer sanction regimen.

 On the other hand, the path to citizenship is not inevitable and should be fiercely resisted. Granting sacred citizenship to scofflaws is reprehensible, and if we pass nothing, at least we won't pass such a citizenship provision.

 Americans, and particularly we conservatives, take unjustified pride in refusing to compromise. But the genius of American politics is precisely our capacity to politically compromise. Our founding fathers were master compromisers -- and not just on secondary issue. At our constitutional convention-after heavy negotiations -- the big states got the House and the small states got the Senate. More or less, the big government Hamiltonians got the federal powers they deemed necessary -- such as the interstate commerce provisions, while the Jeffersonians got the Bill of Rights.

 Even sordid compromises were indulged in to gain even larger objectives. Slavery was permitted and Black slaves were designated three-fifths of a person. That compromise with slavery permitted the union to be born, but necessitated a civil war and 600,000 deaths 80 years later to remedy.

 At our founding we needed a union, and we got it at a high price. Today, we need a genuinely secure border, and we should be prepared to pay a price for that, too.