In its last issue, Great Britain's The Economist waded into America's debate over illegal immigration with a lengthy report, "Dreaming of the Other Side of the Wire." This highly respected weekly pegs the number of illegal immigrants in America at between 8 million and 12 million out of a total of 33.5 million foreign-born U.S. residents. Estimates of the annual number of new illegal entrants reach as high as 3 million.
The magazine hastily dismisses the idea of stepped-up border security. Even though a program to establish a secure fence in the San Diego region has dramatically lowered illegal crossings in that area, the authors opine that "'fixing the border' with Operation Gatekeeper-style fortifications from coast to coast is surely a delusion. For a start it would be too costly (though the administration favours increasing the 11,000-strong Border Patrol by 2,000 agents a year for the next five years, Mr. Bush's 2006 budget proposes funding for just 210.)"
Many GOP strategists worry, though, that the Bush administration must couple the president's plan to normalize the status of the illegals ("amnesty" is off the table) with strong steps to demonstrate a commitment to secure borders. Though nativist rhetoric is condemned by most center-right voices, it is politically risky to ignore a widespread concern that the leaky border is open not just to economically desperate Mexicans and Central Americans, but to the forces of al-Qaeda as well.
Even if a terrorist who entered overland managed only a symbolic attack with no loss of life, the political fallout from such an episode would be disastrous. Every false charge of laxity assessed against the Bush Team leading up to 9/11 would re-emerge with greater force and indeed legitimacy. If an attacker ever does arrive through the porous southern border, you can count on a fence to get underway immediately. If that's the case, critics ask, why not get the work underway now?
Skeptics who raise the question of cost should examine the vast interstate highway system, approaching the 50th anniversary of its launch by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. That program cost $30 billion and laid 41,000 miles of highway, so surely a road/fence program for the borders is not beyond the American purse or engineering competence. A new U.S. 2 on the southern border and U.S. 100 on the northern border would cost billions and take years to complete, but so too did the initial cross-country highway designs. A country undertakes what it needs, and border security has become a necessity.
Immigration issues pose the same party-splitting threat to the Republicans as did the Corn Laws and Irish Home Rule to the English Conservatives and Liberals, respectively, of the 19th century. The GOP has vigorous caucuses devoted both to the free flow of labor and to robust homeland-security measures. President Bush would be best served by a program that offers major incentives to both.