Border battles

April 06, 2005

BORDER PATROL agents jockeying for position alongside members of a self-appointed civilian brigade at the Arizona-Mexico border are a fitting metaphor for the disjointed state of U.S. immigration policy.

This confluence of public frustration and government inadequacy has made Arizona the epicenter of the immigration debate and begs for government action and a comprehensive plan for reforming the immigration system.

President Bush has proposed a plan, but Congress is stuck in a continuous debate over the issue even as Arizonans have taken matters into their own hands and organized vigilante patrols that have turned violent in the past.

With civilians taking positions along a 40-mile stretch of the border this month on the lookout for the seasonal influx of illegal migrants, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), quickly deployed 200 temporary border agents to what is now the crossing point of choice for more than 1 million migrants each year. An additional 534 permanent border agents have been promised to shore up the 2,200 now guarding the entire Arizona border.

Border control officials insist the additional agents are part of a border security initiative started last year. The timing is suspect nonetheless, and the move seems largely symbolic given that only 155 of the permanent agents promised will be new recruits while the rest will be transferred from around the country. The initiative also includes additional air patrols and "smart border" technologies.

These measures may help, but they underscore contradictions in a policy that spends millions of dollars keeping illegal migrants out -- 1.1 million were apprehended at the border last year -- but overlooks the 10.3 million undocumented workers already here who are an essential part of the American labor force but must live on the economic and social margins of society. Many take jobs Americans don't want but employers badly need filled.

The president's plan would allow carefully vetted migrants to work here temporarily and then return home. The incentive to cross illegally would decrease sharply if available jobs were tied to a guest worker program dictated by labor market needs. Workers already here could also participate and legalize their immigration status over time. Both steps would provide the DHS a formal accounting of undocumented workers and a mechanism for tracking them.

Past citizen patrols in Arizona and California reflect long-held frustrations with Congress' failure to act. Massing agents in Arizona won't prevent migrants from walking across more-remote, unmanned sections of the border, or climbing over -- or through holes in -- the metal fence separating the two countries.

Congress should adopt laws that allow regulated and controlled immigration, as proposed by Mr. Bush. Now that would be real border control.

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