By DAN K. THOMASSON
Here’s one for you: Two terrorists are walking up the street, having just arrived in America. One begins chattering in Arabic, only to be remonstrated by his frightened companion that this is the United States, "Do you want to get caught? Speak Spanish."
Funny, but not terribly so considering that almost everything in this country now comes in two languages.
But the Congress has fixed that, hasn’t it? In lightening fashion it authorized 700 miles of double fence along our southern border aimed at keeping more Hispanics from joining the 12 million undocumented workers already here. Once again our lawmakers have proven that, when all is said and done, most have little more courage than a desert mouse when it comes to tackling politically explosive issues.
To go home without at least addressing the most important domestic issue of the new millennium would have been unthinkable. So, as usual, lawmakers did the expedient thing, billing it as an antiterrorism necessity at a projected cost of $6 billion. It is legislation that President Bush should veto but probably won’t despite the fact Mexican authorities and humanitarian groups have protested and urged him to do so. Can we really afford another blow to our image of freedom and openness at a time when half the world views us as imperialistic and hypocritical? Doesn’t that portray us as fearful?
The answers are no and yes. But that has little to do with the importance of satisfying certain political constituencies five weeks before the mid-term elections. The sleight of hand, subscribed to in the Senate by 54 Republicans and 26 Democrats, was to make voters believe something important actually had been done to solve the growing immigration problem. Who cares about meaningful, long-term solutions? Let’s just get this election over then maybe we will do something else. Yeah, right.
In the first place it is hard to imagine that many voters are so naive as to believe for 10 seconds that this stupid fence, supposed to be completed in 2008, is going to slow down the flow of illegal visitors from the south. It won’t take much longer than that for those seeking permanent relief from poverty and deprivation and for those who get rich helping them to figure out how to bypass that obstacle. The gaps in the system, which stretches a distance equivalent to that from Washington, D.C. to Jacksonville, Fla., are large and hunger and poverty can produce unparalleled determination and ingenuity.
What is wrong, of course, is the failure to couple this fence with humane and sensible long-range immigration policies that accommodate this nation’s need for a vital labor force and at the same time offer a measure of security from terrorists. Nothing in this action provides for preferential treatment for aliens who have shown through years here that they can be good citizens, and maintains, with help from the Mexican government, an orderly, reasonable flow of immigrants who could avoid the river and desert crossings that are often disastrous.
Of course the United States must secure its borders from those who would do it harm. It is hard to believe that the fence alone will accomplish that. It is problematic whether this nation ever can be entirely safe from terrorist incursion along its thousands of miles of borders north and south. But adopting immigration policies that rely on more than just physical barriers would go a long way toward relieving hard-pressed security forces from having to deal with tens of thousands of immigrants who want nothing more than a safe haven.
In that regard, the fence measure requires the Homeland Security department to install a system of cameras along the Arizona section of the U.S.-Mexican border and to use aerial drones, sensors and other detection equipment to establish control of the entire border. The cost of that is estimated at another $1.2 billion and has been authorized by the legislation.
Ironically, Bush has proposed an immigration policy that is entirely sensible, only to have it thwarted by Democrats, who seem to want complete openness, and his own Republican majority in Congress who want to shut down immigration completely.
The president should veto this bill and make immigration his major domestic initiative for the last two years of his tenure. The only bright spot in the fence bill is that thousands of laborers will have to be hired to build it. Guess what their heritage is likely to be?
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)