Back in March, Arizona Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain released a 10-point blueprint for beefing up border security. Predictable highlights included more fencing, the intensified prosecution of undocumented immigrants, and rushing another 5,000 Border Patrol agents to the line, on top of the roughly 10,000 already added since 2004.
If the Kyl-McCain measure were to become law, we'd see a total of 26,000 agents on our borders, with an extra five-year price tag of $1.5 billion. And that's just for boots on the ground; the rest of their plan would cost billions more.
That proposed spending, particularly by a pair of self-described Republican fiscal hawks, strikes many observers as shameless trafficking in the politics of fear.
If so, the same fear-mongering has taken centerstage in Phoenix, where earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton dismissed a lawsuit, pushed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, which would have forced the federal government to obtain "operational control" over the border.
Yet another Republican, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, has vowed to press ahead with an appeal. In a subsequent statement, Gov. Brewer repeated her stance that the "federal government ignores its constitutional and statutory duty to secure the border."
Despite this rhetorical rancor, the facts suggest that our border with Mexico is already largely secure, albeit at a hefty cost. According to a February report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, in fiscal year 2010, the Department of Homeland Security spent roughly $3 billion on security efforts along the U.S. Mexico border. Over that time, the Border Patrol attained full operational control of 873 miles of the 2,000-mile Southwest border—an increase of 126 miles per year since 2005.
In addition, Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher reported to Congress this month that Homeland Security has built 650 miles of border fence, just two miles shy of the length believed to be necessary by agency tacticians.
One could argue that those billions of dollars have already done the job. According to crime data culled by USA Today from local border-region law-enforcement agencies and the FBI, crime rates in border cities are now below the national average. Murder rates along the border have dropped nearly every year since 1998, and the FBI's cartel-related kidnapping investigations dropped from 62 in 2009 to 25 in 2010.
If these statistics are correct, why do our political leaders continue to characterize the U.S.-Mexico border as a chaotic and dangerous no-man's land?
Kyl and McCain didn't return calls from the Weekly. But to William Simmons, a political science associate professor at Arizona State University, and the former director of the school's Social Justice and Human Rights master's program, the answer seems obvious. "There's a great deal of political hay to be made with this issue," he says, "and very little understanding of the situation. So politicians can make claims that fly in the face of facts."
To Simmons, our own senators, who are aware of border realities, are spinning away nonetheless. "I think they're telling people what they want to hear," he says. "People want to think that those who are different from themselves are the ones committing the crimes.
"Their sense of fear is reinforced when somebody says that crime is so great at the border. They want to believe that the migrants crossing the border are traffickers, criminals and cartel members. It pulls them out of their comfort zone to think that the migrants might just be people looking for jobs and a better life, and are no different from them."
Bob Dane is a spokesman with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a far-right restrictionist group based in Washington, D.C. He says border stats only tell half the story. "Border security is not one-dimensional—we're never going to have a secure border until we have interior enforcement, and you dry up the magnets, the reasons to come here in the first place. All the fencing in the world isn't going to do much good as long as there are powerful magnets and lax enforcement in the interior.
"That said, fences do work," Dane says. "The fence is not completed, but it should be. We're still falling short of the Secure Fence Act of 2006."
Among other things, that act mandated the DHS to obtain operational control over the border within 18 months of its passage.
Down in Santa Cruz County, Sheriff Tony Estrada finds himself straddling the line between perception and reality. On the one hand, he says, the border is relatively safe. On the other hand, that status could change in a heartbeat. "The border is safer. It is more secure. But it's a very active border, and we have to continue to keep our finger in the dike there, because if we don't, things can change drastically."
For Estrada's department—and for scores of other agencies along the U.S.-Mexico line—maintaining that vigilance comes with a price tag. For years, border counties have spent millions catching and incarcerating undocumented immigrants and narcotics-traffickers. In 2005, the DHS responded with a program called Operation Stonegarden, which compensates those agencies for border-enforcement work in coordination with the federal government.
Though critics deride the program as yet another incentive for maintaining the specter of a dangerous border, Sheriff Estrada—whose department recently received a $414,000 Stonegarden infusion—calls those funds essential. "For too long, we've been dealing with border issues on our own dime," he says. "And if we're going to partner with the federal government—if we're going to be here on the border, and we're going to have an impact—then yes, we definitely need help."
But others say that an overblown threat along the border exacts too many costs, from needless spending to profound environmental degradation by Border Patrol vehicles and the massive, 650-mile fence.
"I think reality has been the first casualty in this debate," says Dan Millis, program coordinator for the Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign in Tucson. "Just listen to some of the ridiculous things coming form the Republican candidates (for president) that are completely removed from what it actually looks like here in the borderlands.
"We're talking about a place that has already been militarized to the hilt at great cost to taxpayers," says Millis.