03/20/2013 02:26 pm ET Updated May 20, 2013

The Border Security Black Hole and the Key to Immigration Reform

After two decades of emphasis on high security of the U.S.-Mexico border, brute-force policies have left America with costs that are too high, and benefits that are too little. As immigration continues to permeate American political debate, a reconsideration of previous approaches must be performed, and alternative solutions must be explored.

The Past

Eleven days after the unprecedented events of September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration appointed Tom Ridge as the first director of the Office of Homeland Security. In 2002, the Homeland Security Act established the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a recognized cabinet-level department, charged with "[securing] the nation from the many threats we face." This broad mission of "national security" included a duty to "Secure and manage our borders" and "Enforce and administer our immigration laws." Thus the long-standing border patrol agency, formerly under the Immigration and Naturalization Service, was merged with one of the most powerful cabinet-level departments.

Clinton-era America formulated three separate operations to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. Operation Gatekeeper in California, Operation Hold-the-Line in Texas, and Operation Safeguard in Arizona all contributed to the creation of several miles of barriers emplaced to restrict illegal immigration. The Bush Administration additionally passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006, building hundreds of miles of fencing as well as authorizing the use of satellite reconnaissance and surveillance camera imaging, attempting to further solidify the porous southern border. The Obama administration has not been lax on the immigration issue, either, increasing the number of convictions at the border far beyond that of the Bush years. Given the immense investments of time, money, and political speech that all three of these presidents have made to secure the border, it becomes essential to evaluate the efficiency of this strategy.

The Present

In the midst of an economic recession, when every program from social security to welfare is tested by fire to ascertain its absolute necessity to American sustenance, when fiscal concerns are finally strong enough to shatter the adamant grip of the Norquist Pledge, America must be willing to account for cost of strict border control, and determine if building walls is truly the panacea to fundamental immigration issues.

In the last 10 years, over $90 billion have been poured into the security and maintenance of the U.S.-Mexico border. Additionally, convicted undocumented immigrants must be detained and dealt with, further increasing the cost burden for American taxpayers. Arguably, these programs have succeeded in somewhat ebbing the flow of illegal immigration, but the problem is far from resolved. Pew estimates claim that over 11 million undocumented immigrants resided in the United States in 2011, and more are piling in every year.

Border control remains a vigorous political issue, and enjoys overwhelming support from the majority of Americans. One of the main driving forces behind the fervor to secure the border is the idea that illegal immigration poses a threat to the American economy, that undocumented immigrants take American jobs by working for lower wages. If the issue is an economic one, however, then the cost of fixing it should be factored into the overall favorability. Ninety billion dollars of spending is not justified by, as recent economic reports suggest, "a small negative impact" on the economy caused by illegal immigration. Reducing illegal immigration is an essential goal of the United States -- for no developed country can allow a large portion of its populace to live undocumented, untaxed, and unknown -- but a feasible solution must be more financially viable than the crude border security measures in place today.

The cost of securing the U.S.-Mexico border is not limited to the vast economic investment made in building walls and employing patrolling agents; the human cost is just as striking. In the last 13 years, there have been over 5,000 migrant deaths along the border (to put this statistic into perspective, this is slightly more than the total number of fatal American casualties in the Iraq War). The American Civil Liberties Union approached the UN General Assembly with a list of alleged human rights violations earlier this year, chastising the border patrol for "systematic abuses" of power and excessive force.

The Future

Long-term sustainability of U.S.-Mexico relations and the immigration system requires fundamental strategic changes. The United States, so far, has employed a primarily subjective approach to illegal immigration, an approach that has proven to be costly, and not wholly effective.

A more effective approach to solving the illegal immigration problem requires a more empathetic view of the situation. While it is true that undocumented immigrants come to the United States for the wealth of job opportunities in this nation, the term "opportunity" when applied to a country is relative. Illegal immigration's roots can be traced as much to the opportunities of America as to the poverty of Mexico, as much to the high standard of living in the U.S. as to the violence in Mexico.

There is a stark contrast between the United States, a stable world superpower, and Mexico, its next-door neighbor wracked with brutal drug violence. Wherever such stark contrast exists, immigration will occur, legally or illegally, for reason and pragmatism compels citizens of one country to migrate to the other.

Poverty, violence, and crime all contribute to the appeal of illegal immigration for Mexican citizens. Mexico endures a homicide rate of 24 per 100,000, compared to a rate of less than five per 100,000 in the United States. According to the World Bank, about 51.3 percent of Mexican citizens live at or below the poverty line -- the majority of Mexicans live in poverty. Such unappealing circumstances ensure that immigration will remain an issue along the U.S.-Mexico border.

According to an aforementioned statistic, 5,000 migrant deaths have occurred along the border in the last thirteen years. Thousands of Mexicans have died crossing the border, and yet more attempt to cross every day -- a solemn testimony to the powerful circumstances that move these men, women, and children to cross the border. Building walls and setting up patrols can only have marginal success preventing the passage of individuals who are willing to risk their lives to reach America.

Long-term tensions between the United States and Mexico in the area of illegal immigration can only be alleviated with tactics that result in positive development. While some border security remain necessary for due process, the frivolous expenses of building walls and utilizing surveillance technology need not occur if the very urge to migrate is reduced.

America and Mexico are forever intertwined by geological fate -- neither can physically escape the other -- and so it is essential for the United States to strengthen political relations with its southern neighbor.

An approach towards positive development must include a reconsideration of U.S. goals in Mexico. Through the Merida Initiative, the United States has sent over $1.4 billion of aid to Mexico to fight drug cartels and aid the Mexican government in enforcing rule of law, and has largely failed. The underlying problem in Mexico remains the level of poverty. The narcotics industry remains extremely profitable, in spite of American efforts to smother the drug trade, with billions spent on illegal drugs each year. This massive profit margin keeps the drug cartels in power and undermines the efforts of police initiatives. Many Mexican police officials defect to the drug cartels, enthralled by the power of money in a poverty-stricken country. Even when strategic victories are made, such as assassinations of key drug lords, the violence only erupts with greater furor as massive cartels fight for reestablishment of leadership.

A different approach to the issue would include a gradual halt of U.S. aid to the ineffective "war on drugs" in Mexico and redirection of funding towards economic progress. Effective legislation and pragmatic aid programs can stimulate the Mexican economy and uplift the standard of living in the nation. Further emphasis on grassroots economic development, such as education initiatives and alteration of trade agreements, not only ensures that American tax dollars are working for positive growth in Mexico, but will also ultimately help free Mexico from the grip of drug cartels. Attacking the drug cartels will do little to grow the economy, but Mexican economic growth can decimate the power of cartels.

Of course, stimulating the Mexican economy is probably considerably more difficult than building walls or sending marines to fight cartels, but it is a goal worth pursuing, especially for the United States. With almost $30 billion of foreign aid given, just in 2010, the United States is one of the leading donors in the world. It is an insult to U.S. philanthropic objectives that Mexico, America's next-door neighbor, remains in such abject poverty. With appropriate oversight and active involvement, the United States, a country so vigorously engaged in global affairs, can effectuate significant economic progress in Mexico.

It is time to realize that America cannot exist and thrive as a walled-off island, suspended in a vacuum. Border control can only go so far; no security is airtight, especially when the area to be secured spans thousands of miles. Ultimately the ceaseless spate of illegal immigration from Mexico can only be reduced by effectively altering the circumstances that encourage such migration in the first place.