Border Security Doesn’t Require “Invading” the Border

When President Bush left office in January 2009, there were about 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. If the Senate immigration bill (S. 744) passes, this military-style mobilization will come to the U.S.-Mexico border — and then some.

Under the Hoeven-Corker border security amendment, approved Monday, the bill would now pour in at least 38,405 Border Patrol personnel along America’s Southern border — more than double the original amount. At the same time, it would increase total border security funding more than five-fold — from $8.3 billion to $46.3 billion.

These funds will go to finish a 700-mile border fence and add hundreds of new surveillance towers, thousands of camera systems, and tens of thousands of ground sensors — not to mention fiber-optic tank inspection scopes, thermal imaging systems, and “portable contraband detectors.” It will send 17 UH-1n helicopters, five Blackhawk helicopters, eight AS-350 light enforcement helicopters, and enough drones to log 130,000 hours of flight time each year.

This is not simple “border security” — personnel-wise, it’s a mobilization proportional to the one in Afghanistan (it’s already being called “the surge“). But unlike that adventure, it was not provoked by any foreign aggression. Instead, this offensive is a response to hundreds of thousands of peaceful people moving to the United States to work — such a reaction is without even the slightest rationale.

Not to be misunderstood, border “security” is a legitimate and necessary function of government—border “invasions” are not. Border security would require immigrants and travelers to enter within legal avenues through which they could be processed and checked. Security’s role is to protect and aid movement between countries, which allows free markets to extend beyond legal jurisdictions.

Hoeven-Corker’s amendment is not about protecting and aiding legal movement between countries, nor is it about addressing the justifiable concern of property owners along the border (it actually expands Border Patrol’s powers to trample property rights along the border). Those concerns could be addressed with small increases in border protection and major increases in legal avenues for entry for peaceful, low-skilled workers — cutting demand for illegal entry.

Only accessible channels for legal immigration will end illegal immigration. As I’ve noted previously, America nearly eliminated illegal entries in the 1960s through dramatically expanding work visa options for low-skilled immigrants. Rather than building on this proven method for addressing illegal immigration, this bill includes a complex and utterly inadequate guest work program, which does the bare minimum to increase legal movement.

America has seen a tenfold increase in border security spending over the last 25 years, and in all that time, the illegal population in the United States shot up. Economist Douglas Massey at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that this was not because of greater entries, but rather fewer exits. During the 1980s, migrants traveled back and forth freely. But after the border buildup, this became too costly and dangerous, so they settled and brought their families.

This experience shows that allowing people to move freely — through legal channels — not only could reduce illegal entries, it also could keep overall immigration lower than it would be otherwise. But these facts are rejected in favor of more wasteful government programs and spending. And border hawks still say the spending is not enough.

It will never be enough. Twenty years from now, people will say, “Democrats are to education spending what Republicans are to border security spending.” Illegal immigration and poor educational outcomes are institutional problems for which the simple fix is freedom. Let people choose where they want to go to school or work. These fixes have solved problems. More money hasn’t.

Immigration reform could be, and likely still will be, economically valuable, but Hoeven-Corker needlessly throws away a large portion of the gains. Perhaps as importantly, the border militarization will serve as a permanent reminder of America’s restrictionist system, which will only encourage more of the same.