Commentary and AnalysisBy James D. Hessman, jamesd@domprep.com

The 21 September DHS (Department of Homeland Security) announcement that the Boeing Company has been awarded a contract to build a “fence” of sorts – with some “virtual” components included – along the U.S. border with Mexico is not the beginning of the end of the long-festering U.S. border-security problem. But if all goes well it might be, as Winston Churchill said in another and much more difficult context, “the end of the beginning.” Among the more important specifics of the contract disclosed by DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff at a 22 September press conference are the following: The building of the fence will begin with a 28-mile stretch of what is called the “Tucson sector” along the U.S. land border with Mexico. The completed fence, considered by many to be the most important component of the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), will extend approximately 6,000 miles – i.e., the combined lengths of the U.S. southern border with Mexico and the nation’s northern border with Canada. The initial $67 million contract will run, theoretically, for three years, with three option years also covered, but there will be numerous stopping points along the way during which progress will be evaluated, problems ironed out, and the pace of construction either expanded or, perhaps, slowed down.    

Chertoff emphasized several times during the press conference that the building of the SBInet fence would be only one part of the Bush administration’s multifaceted plan to stop illegal immigration. U.S. government and private-sector estimates agree that there are now approximately eleven million illegal immigrants in the United States, with an estimated 500,000 more illegal immigrants entering each year – most of them across the U.S.-Mexican border. Other Components of the Plan Chertoff pointed out that the administration also has significantly increased (to 18,000 agents now on the Under catch and release, many illegal migrants who had been arrested were almost immediately released under their own cognizance and were never heard from again. roster) the number of Border Patrol agents assigned to police the nation’s land borders, has brought charges against 550 employers of illegal immigrants, and has stopped what he described as the “pernicious … catch-and-release policy.” Under catch and release, many illegal migrants who had been arrested were almost immediately released under their own cognizance and were never heard from again.What if any impact the award of the SBInet contract will have on this year’s congressional elections is uncertain. Numerous surveys show that a large majority of the American people want illegal immigration stopped. There are major differences on the follow-up details, though, both within each party and between the consensus opinions in the House and Senate.   

The biggest and most important difference revolves around the question of what to do about the eleven million illegal immigrants now resident in the United States. Various spokesmen, some of them self-appointed, for immigrant groups and organizations favor the granting of a general amnesty – perhaps with certain legal but temporary strings attached. This position seems to be favored by more Democrats than Republicans – except in the U.S. Senate. Other groups, focused more, perhaps, on homeland security – and on the principle that those who break the law should not be rewarded for their transgressions – are opposed to amnesty of any type. A Problem for the Next President? The Bush administration has tried to position itself in the middle by proposing a plan that theoretically would stop future illegal immigration but, except in certain well defined cases, permit the illegal migrants already living and working in the United States to remain in place and, eventually, earn the right to American citizenship. The critics of this plan, including many Republican members of Congress, are vehemently opposed and describe it as “amnesty under another name.”      

The bottom line is that, although the SBInet contract represents a major step forward, and impressive progress has been made on other fronts, the illegal-immigration problem is not yet solved – and probably will not be for several more years, during which time several million more people will have little or no difficulty crossing the still porous U.S. land borders. Some of those making the crossing are likely to be terrorists – but not even the experts in this field can make even a well-educated guess on the exact number. A final aspect of the current immigration debate worth mentioning: If the various reform plans already suggested have less an impact on this year’s elections than has previously been predicted, illegal immigration may well be an even more important issue – perhaps the most important issue – in the 2008 presidential election.

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James D. Hessman

James D. Hessman is former editor in chief of both the Navy League’s Sea Power Magazine and the League’s annual Almanac of Seapower. Prior to that dual assignment he was senior editor of Armed Forces Journal International.

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