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Symbolic Politics and U.S. Border Enforcement

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Last week, Secretary Michael Chertoff testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, hailing his Department's efforts in securing the "homeland" by essentially militarizing and building a 335-mile barricade along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Many of the declared achievements that Chertoff noted are associated with Operation Jump Start, a joint program by the Border Patrol and Department of Defense that deployed 6,000 National Guard troops to assist with surveillance operations and fence construction. Shortly after the two-year anniversary of its inception, Operation Jump Start is coming to an end. Meanwhile, its "raging success" tenuously dangles on Chertoff's misleading "metrics of success."

In his testimony, Chertoff reported a 20 percent decline in apprehensions along the southern border for Fiscal Year 2007. Yet if the persistence of undocumented immigration is any indicator, Jump Start is anything but a success.

According to the findings of a research team led by Dr. Wayne Cornelius, Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego, fewer than half of undocumented immigrants who come to the border are apprehended even once by the Border Patrol. The research, which coincided with Operation Jump Start, found that the vast majority of those attempting to cross the border -- between 92 and 98 percent -- eventually get through.

Border experts have also pointed out that much of Chertoff's proclaimed victory can be explained by smugglers charging more for their increasingly creative services. From 1995 to 2005-2007 the average coyote fee rose from $978 to $2,124 -- and for most undocumented immigrants, hiring a coyote essentially guarantees success.

When citing the decrease in both apprehensions at the border and remittances sent by workers in the United States to family members in Mexico, Chertoff also failed to consider the fact that undocumented immigration naturally decreases when the U.S. economy is in recession. Cornelius' report shows that undocumented migration clearly responds to changing U.S. economic conditions, with significant decreases during economic downturns such as the one we are in now. A recent report released by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that during the first quarter of 2008, the Hispanic jobless rate climbed to 6.5%, with over 220,000 Hispanics losing construction jobs -- a sector which employs many undocumented immigrants.

Even though the $1.4 million Operation Jump Start program is coming to an end, Chertoff's testimony affirmed that the spirit of its "symbolic politics" will live on. Chertoff reiterated his commitment to having in place a total of 670 miles of border fencing by the end of 2008. Chertoff also seeks to further increase the number of Border Patrol agents to 18,000 -- the largest expansion of the Border Patrol in its history.

Cornelius and his fellow researchers conclude that stopping undocumented immigration will involve more than simply throwing more money and manpower into an enforcement-only strategy that has failed for decades. In his testimony, Chertoff proclaims: "There can be no homeland security without border security." Yet, there can be no border security, and therefore no homeland security, without a rational, fair, and practical immigration system that restores the rule of law through realistic regulation.

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