Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
Take your pick. Cities and towns on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico are among the safest in the country. Or: Mexican drug gangs have turned the longest stretch of the 2,000-mile border, the line between Texas and Mexico, into a war zone.
The first version is President Barack Obama’s. He has crime statistics on his side. The second comes from an alarmist 182-page report by two retired generals, including former drug czar Barry McCaffrey. Among their assertions: “Living and conducting business in a Texas border county is tantamount to living in a war zone in which civil authorities, law enforcement agencies as well as citizens are under attack around the clock.”
(True enough for large parts of Mexican territory south of the border, where more than 42,000 people have died since President Felipe Calderon declared war on drug mafias five years ago.)
The stark contrast between the two versions speaks volumes about the war of words generated by the issues of immigration and border security during an election campaign. Most of the Republican presidential hopefuls have been competing on who sounds toughest on illegal immigration and on the height of the wall they want to build between the two countries.
Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, fired the opening salvo in the who-is-the-toughest contest by saying there should be a barrier “every mile, every foot, every inch” to keep illegal immigrants out. Herman Cain, a front-runner in the Republican primary contest according to latest polls, upped the ante by suggesting a division reminiscent of the Iron Curtain, the lethal system of walls, fences, minefields and manned watch towers that divided Europe during the Cold War.
“It’s going to be 20 feet high,” he said on October 15. “It’s going to be electrified. And there’s going to be a sign on the other side saying ‘It will kill you – Warning.’” A day later, Cain told a television interviewer he meant that as a joke. Another day later, he said he believed a border fence was in fact needed and it could be electrified.
The electrified fence flip-flop followed Cain remarks in the summer holding out the Great Wall of China, at around 5,500 miles the longest wall ever built, as a model for separating the United States and Mexico. He failed to mention that the Chinese wall did not do what it was meant to do – keep out the northern barbarians against whom it was mean to protect.
A refresher course in history would be useful for Bachmann, Cain and a host of others who talk of “securing the border” as the essential first step on the way to reforming an immigration system almost everybody agrees is dysfunctional. There has never been an impenetrable border though that indisputable fact did nothing to prevent Congress, in 2006, from passing a bill that set an impossible target.
That was to establish “operational control” over the world’s busiest border (about 350 million crossings a year). The Secure Fence Act defined operational control as “the prevention of all unlawful U.S. entries, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism and other contraband.”
To do that, the U.S. Border Patrol has been doubled in size (to around 20,000 agents) under a build-up begun in the administration of George W. Bush and continued under Obama, who won the presidency partly thanks to Latino voters who believed his campaign pledge that he would push through “comprehensive immigration reform” within one year of taking office.
That reform is meant to tackle all aspects of the system, from complicated entry visa regulations to the presence of an estimated 10 million illegal immigrants, the majority Mexicans, already in the country. Once in office, he made little effort to fulfill his promise but his administration steadily stepped up the pace of deportations. They reached a record 400,000 in the fiscal year that ended in September.
The irony of so much emphasis on deporting illegal immigrants under a president who promised so much more has not escaped the Latino community and groups supporting a balanced approach to the complex problem. Joanne Lin of the American Civil Liberties Union noted that the record deportations came at a time when “illegal immigration rates have plummeted, the undocumented population has decreased substantially and violent crime rates are at their lowest in 40 years.”
Violent crime across the United States has been dropping every year since 2006, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Does that hold true for the border region the generals’ report describes as a war zone under assault from Mexican gangs?
In May, the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, Steve McCraw, listed violence his agency had identified as “directly related to the Mexican cartels.” Between January 2010 and May 2011, he said, there were 22 murders, 24 assaults, 15 shootings and 5 kidnappings — 66 incidents in all in a state with 23 million people.
That translates into 3.9 per month. Not much of a war.