Over the next few weeks we can expect to hear a lot from Republicans about border security. What we will not hear is any explanation of what border security actually looks like. That’s because border security, as used in this debate, is nothing more than a diversion.
Despite the ugly rhetoric and the long series of mistakes, there may still be time for Republicans to get out ahead of this issue and build a 21st century immigration platform that we can look back on with pride for the next few decades. Thanks to the Democrats’ nervous dithering, the door is still open, but we are running out of time. Obama’s pending executive actions are going to force the issue to the front in a way that will give Republicans just enough rope for a good clean suicide.
If Republicans are going to have any hope of navigating the trap being laid for us, we’ve got to come to terms with a few realities around immigration, starting with the meaning of “border security.” Perhaps pictures might help. This is a secure border:
This is an insecure border:
Travelling from Egypt across the border into Gaza is a miserable, nearly impossible ordeal. No legitimate commerce can be maintained across that boundary. It is guarded by steel walls with watch towers manned by armed guards. Occasionally Egypt closes all traffic crossing the border (in recent months it has been closed almost all the time). And yet it remains one of the primary methods used by Hamas to move illegal goods and weapons into Gaza. It is a tense, insecure border and a consistent security problem consuming enormous energy and money.
Meanwhile people travel back and forth across the border between Holland and Belgium on their way to the bathroom. Border security operations there cost very little, yet with the exception of Dutch families crossing into Belgium to purchase fireworks, the border is entirely secure.
These two images illustrate the problem with the empty Republican rhetoric on “border security.” Building a healthy border capable of protecting a country’s sovereignty and interests starts and ends with policy. Holland is able to protect its sovereignty without steel walls because its political policies are aligned with its physical situation. They didn’t achieve a secure border by building a better fence. They achieved a secure border by building better political arrangements.
Egypt’s border with Gaza is a costly, dangerous and occasionally deadly human nightmare because the political arrangements governing that border are absolutely insane. No fences ever built will make that border safe until some political settlement is reached. In the meantime it will remain a barrier to trade, a massive economic burden, and a flash point for potentially destabilizing violence.
Real border security comes from sound policy.
The bad news for us is that we are the destabilizing force on our southern border. Fortunately, that is also the good news, since in theory it means that we are capable of fixing the problem.
Bad policy inside the United States has broken our border security in ways that are expensive and dangerous. First, our short-sighted and utterly failed attempt to manage our drug problem has turned our border into a war zone, feeding criminal gangs in neighboring countries. Second, we have shut down almost any practical means of legal immigration while refusing to craft enforceable laws against hiring illegals.
Want to secure the border, spend less taxpayer money, improve American economic competitiveness and create a massive economic shot in the arm? Fix those two problems.
Through a failed policy of blanket prohibition, we pay people to breach our border. That bounty is roughly $100bn a year, or about eight times as much as we spend on all aspects of customs and border control.
Tear down the walls and send home the dogs. We could end that illegal trade tomorrow by adopting regulatory schemes similar to what we use for liquor, prescription drugs, or Sudafed. We could still control usage, better than we do today, and crush the black market in illegal drugs with a regulated market.
Similar to illegal drugs, we dangle billions of dollars’ worth of incentives to illegal workers while blocking any access to meet that demand through legal channels. We have hundreds of solid options available for fixing this problem, including methods that would be market based and privately enforced, involving little government involvement. We can’t get started on any of them because we are less concerned about legal immigration than we are about protecting our culture from change.
We will achieve real border security when we start making intelligent policy choices. Republicans should be well positioned to lead the way on border security since many of the best solutions are based on market mechanisms rather than big government. Unfortunately, the GOP is not only the party of markets and commerce; it has become the central political expression of aging whites terrified of losing their cultural dominance.
That’s where Republican border security rhetoric confronts border security politics. The policies that will make America more powerful, wealthier, and more secure will also make America increasingly more diverse. Too many core Republican voters are willing to live in a weaker, poorer country so long as people who speak English and look like me remain securely dominant. As long as Republicans are more interested in cultural security than border security, Republicans will not regain leadership on immigration reform.