Last month I was invited by the New Mexico National Guard to see firsthand the deployment of Guard units from around the country on the Mexican border near Columbus.
I was in a group of legislators that flew with National Guard escorts in a Black Hawk helicopter from Albuquerque to Las Cruces for a briefing and then on to the border crossing at Palomas and out across the Boot Heel country before circling back and returning home.
I've been digesting information from that day ever since. It was an incredible flight across vast empty spaces lush with vegetation from the heavy monsoon rains. We saw evidence of the flooding that had swamped Belen, Hatch and Deming. The Guard played a key role in dealing with the flooding.
The New Mexico National Guardsmen and their officers who briefed us on “Operation Jumpstart” were informative, skilled, crisp and utterly professional. As New Mexicans, we can be very proud of them and the way they are conducting themselves on this assignment.
Yet I have to conclude from observing the situation on this quick fly-by that border control is not a fit assignment for military troops. No one said that, of course--troops described what they're doing by the border in the most positive terms possible. But it's hard to escape the conclusion that their primary purpose is political, not military. And frankly, they seemed embarrassed to be involved.
Call it “Homeland Security” until you're blue in the face, but the troops themselves know that no terrorists are making the trek across the Chihuahuan wilds, just impoverished campesinos, some with whole families in tow. The people tripping the night vision detectors and the heat-seeking radar systems are raggedy peasants.
The Guard is not permitted to fire weapons, is not even allowed to detain or arrest border crossers themselves. We have prohibitions against allowing the military to operate domestically, thank heavens. At least for now.
But what the New Mexicans (as well as entire units of National Guard from North Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas and other states) are expected to do is keep watch. Observe vigilantly. Man outposts where crossings are likely to occur. And then call in the coordinates of the crossers to the Border Patrol, the agency that does have the authority to arrest and detain persons in the country without proper documents.
Once detained, the crossers are fingerprinted, photographed, their identities entered into the database … and then sent back to Mexico--if it is their first time. Subsequent detentions are treated under federal law as felonies. That means illegal crossers will have to be held, tried and sentenced to one of the federal immigration prisons that have been created in recent years.
Now I’m not an economist, but this sure seems like financial insanity of mammoth proportions. When you figure that a single inmate is held in federal prison for one year at a cost in excess of $40,000, the price tag for arresting and detaining the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans seeking work in the U.S. is astronomical. So is the cost of equipping, supporting and supplying the thousands of National Guard soldiers who are camped out in Lordsburg, Deming and El Paso, plus those in Arizona, California and Texas.
But there's something even costlier in this futile adventure: our international reputation and image. What it will take to regain our standing around the world as a bastion of freedom and liberty after this short-sighted border blockade can only be guessed at … if it can ever be reclaimed.
Both parties of Congress have abandoned reality in voting to finance the construction of 700 miles of “the wall,” the National Guard deployment, the increased size of the Border Patrol, the installation of high-tech radar and other cosmetic gestures.
Worse, it appears now as if they themselves recognize the lunacy of the wall, but cynically voted for it just before adjourning for the year (and the campaign trail) to appear “tough” to voters--and then hedged against that action the very next day by voting to withhold the actual appropriation.
So the wall will probably never be built. But the damage it causes will still go on, because in the arena of world opinion, our reputation in regard to immigration has been seriously compromised.
A few days after my helicopter junket to the border-tightening charade, I spoke with someone who had been working in New Orleans for several weeks. She explained that post-Katrina reconstruction of that community was going slowly because of the difficulty in finding enough able labor to clear up the mess.
“But,” she noted, “the pace is picking up considerably now that they are bringing in boatloads of Mexican immigrant laborers to get the job done.”
I must have registered some surprise at this because she hastened to affirm that they were being brought in by the companies who had the contracts for reconstruction and that the whole venture was under the supervision of the federal government.
That completed the jigsaw puzzle. Act tough along the border in an election year. But be realistic enough to accept that we can’t get much hard work done anymore in the good ol’ U.S. of A. without immigrant workers. That’s not a paradox--that’s blatant hypocrisy.