Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson: Border security isn't the problem

May 04, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson will be online to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column Border security isn't the problem in which Gene writes: "The notion that the first thing to do is "secure the border" between the United States and Mexico -- and only then worry about comprehensive immigration reform -- falls somewhere between hopeful fantasy and cynical cop-out. It's a good sound bite but would be a ridiculous policy."

Hello, everyone. Welcome to our weekly free-for-all. I was all set to talk about immigration today. This morning's column says that those who say "secure the border first" before looking at a comprehensive solution are not living in the real world -- that there are practical, political, economic and diplomatic reasons why a Berlin Wall along all 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border won't and shouldn't be built. But immigration has been overtaken by terrorism, as we learn more every hour about the attempted car-bombing in Times Square. And meanwhile, of course, oil continues to flow from that mile-deep well in the Gulf of Mexico. Lots to talk about -- let's get started.

Eugene, You wrote,"The answer is not a bigger wall. And the answer surely is not Arizona's shameful new law, which, Gordon said, "doesn't do one thing but make our city less safe." So your answer is amnesty for illegals and allow just about anyone who wants to come here are welcomed with no restrictions. I'm reminded of Rick Santelli's rant on CNBC last year. Can you at least acknowledge the anger that millions of Americans and immigrants (like my grandparents) feel about that, people who obey the law and do the responsible thing and feel like damn fools for doing so?

I acknowledge the anger, but I honestly don't understand it -- not its intensity, at least. There are some bad people who have come into the country illegally, and I can see being angry about that. But what did the people who are picking crops, making beds in hotels and landscaping homes ever do to you to make you angry?

You offer absoutely no resolution or remedy....so what is your point?

I do -- a comprehensive plan that would allow the productive undocumented immigrants who are already settled here to stay; some sort of program that allows temporary workers to come and go; more legal visas for Mexicans and other Latin Americans, so they have some hope of being able to come legitimately, which they don't now; and, yes, tighter border security that stops short of a new Berlin Wall.

The idea of securing the border is not ridiculous. Rather, it is a vital component of comprehensive immigration reform. As was proven by the last amnesty under President Reagan, a path to citizenship without securing the border only invites more illegal immigration. Many of us would be far more willing accept a path to citizenship as long as it were coupled with sealing the border to ensure it would be the last time. Why are people on your side of the aisle so reluctant to do what most other countries in the world do - ensure the integrity and sovereignty of our borders?

I've yet to hear of a practical way to seal the U.S.-Mexico border, short of some kind of enormous barrier. I've been a lot of places around the world, and most borders I've seen are pretty porous when people really want to cross them.

Gene, your last couple of columns about the mess in Arizona have been really outstanding. That's it. No question. Keep firing away. Mudge

Thanks. Somebody's got my back.

Eugene, Every time immigration reform is mentioned regarding the illegal aliens, a 'path to citizenship' is part of the deal. Why is citizenship the end goal? Wouldn't a permanent residency status be sufficient for workers to reside and integrate into our country? Doesn't providing a path to citizenship reek of 'voting' for a particular political party? Citizenship is normally reserved for those with good character traits which does not include breaking laws.

Not all of the undocumented would want to become citizens, I suppose, but isn't it better to have them fully invested in the country? You know, before 1875, we basically had no immigration laws at all -- come one, come all. Latinos are assimilating just like their predecessors. Why not citizenship?

Eugene, I can only guess where you stand on the oil spill issue, since I've missed your past few columns, but I have heard plenty from the enviro NIMBY's about how this is proof positive to not "Drill Baby Drill." I'd like to offer a counter argument. First, when was the last US spill even approaching this magnitude? Exxon Valdez 3 decades ago. And before that? Santa Barbara 5 decades ago. That seems like a pretty good track record to me. Add to that the fact that to drill in or off the US, you must imploy THE best and safest technologies, and the US has among THE most stringent regulations on this industry in the world. Oil will continue to be pumped to meet demand. Either we can do some of it in the most environemntally friendly way possible (not barring the very occasional accident like we're seeing now) or we can have other countries do it, where environmental protection is not nearly their chief concern, and incidentally, where any accidents will cheifly impact brown, poor people. But hey, so long as we have our shrimp and pristine beaches, who cares about them, right?

I've heard a lot of this recently -- sudden concern for the delicate environment of the delta region in Nigeria. My friend and colleague Jonathan Capehart wrote a piece to this effect yesterday. I think the fact that other countries despoil their waters and wetlands is no reason to despoil ours. That said, the cat has been out of this bag for a long time -- there are thousands of oil rigs off our shores. The question about new drilling is whether the marginal increase in the domestic oil supply is worth the potential environmental cost. I confess that I haven't really worked that out. One thing that's obvious, however, is that we need new safety procedures and equipment, and that rigs need to be a certain distance from the shoreline.

The way this investigation has played out I'm suprised the anti Bush crowd hasn't made more noise. This is a great example of how treating terrorism like a criminal / policing problem rather than a military problem works. No enemy combatants, no disappearing people, no enhanced techniques; all phone logs, video, and interviews. Obama should crow about it a bit more I think.

You're referring, of course, to the Times Square attempted bombing. Yes, from what we know now, it was pure, classic, terrifically efficient police work that cracked this case. The system worked.

This is largely about race, isn't it? I realize that there are economic issues, and that there may be security issues along the border. But a lot of these rightwingers are freaked out because the country is changing in general and by the fact that Obama doesn't look like presidents are "supposed to." Am I wrong?

Well, there you go again, getting to the uncomfortable heart of the issue. Yes, I think some of the anger comes from the fact that this is becoming a nation of minorities -- there will be no white majority by 2050 -- and I think that for some people, the fact that the first brown-skinned president sits in the White House brings this new reality home in an uncomfortable way.

So why don't I see signs in Czech like I see signs in Spanish. My ancestors assimilated, these people do not.

We sharae a continent, a border, a history and a culture with the most populous Spanish-speaking nation in the world. If we had a border with the Czech Republic, and there were 100 million Czechs there -- and millions of recently arrived Czech-Americans here -- you'd see signs in Czech.

"Allow the productive undocumented immigrants who are already settled here to stay." Sounds good. How about unproductive immigrants? How would you define such people? How would you identify them? Would they be subject to some sort of punishment for being here illegally, or would you simply deport them (allowing them to attempt to re-cross the border)? There are a lot of practical difficulties with selective amnesty. A better approach would be to apprehend and punish all persons who are violating our laws, including immigration laws, while making it much easier for those that abide by our laws to obtain legal, temporary visas, right?

You deal with the violation of the immigration laws with a fine. You throw out undocumented immigrants who have violated our criminal (not immigration) laws, and I don't mean anyone who has a single speeding ticket.

Isn't the strongest argument against the 2000-mile fence the havoc it would wreak among migratory animals (the non-homo sapien kind)? Or are Arizonans also upset about illegal alien antelopes?

That's one strong argument that I didn't mention. Critters don't bother to apply for visas.

"We are not one world." You cannot have both open borders, open government lines of credit and open taxpayer wallets. We are already over taxed and over spent and in huge debt because of burgeoning entitlement programs. The unabated flow of immigrants is not sustainable. That's why immigrations laws are written in the first place. To suggest that borders are but racial divides is harsh. I cannot just go to Canada or Europe to live. We have an educational, medical and social services network set up to serve those paying into it. My pockets are tapped, I don't know about yours. The ball is in the Fed court to act. The oath of office to protect and defend has been recited. Get going.

But what does any of what you complain about have to do with any of the rest of what you complain about? There are  studies that come down on both sides of the question of whether undocumented immigrants are a net plus or a net minus to the economy, but they're certainly not the reason why your pockets and my pockets are tapped. That's because we demand more from our government than we're willing to pay for.

The people whining about Latinos not assimilating are just wrong. I have known any number of kids of Latino immigrants over the years. Almost invariably they are fully part of American life, speak fluent English, and completely identify politically with the US. even if they maintain some of their cultural traditions. A surprising number are veterans of the US military. Immigrants come to this country. Depending on age, education, social status, and opportunities they may or may not learn much English. They have kids, who are bilingual and bicultural. Those kids in turn have kids who are monolingual English speakers, and may not even be able to talk to their grandparents. It's been that way forever, and it's still that way now.

This is exactly what all the research says.

The Latino percentage of the electorate is considerable and growing. Is this action going to seriously hurt the Republicans?

Polls show that Latinos -- the biggest, fastest-growing minority group in the country -- feel strongly about the immigration issue. Latinos voted by 2-to-1 for Obama over McCain in the last election. If Republicans alienate Latino voters for a generation or two, the way the party alienated African-Americans with the "Southern Strategy" in 1968, it's hard to see how the GOP wins national elections.

"The system worked." Come again? As far as we know (and it's still early), the only reason why we do not have a crater in Times Square right now is because some terrorist moron forgot to wire the bomb together correctly. Law enforcement and the federal governemnt did a great job running the terrorist plot to ground *after* it had been implemented (just like after 9/11), but the goal should be to prevent these attacks in the first place. The system failed.

There is no imaginable system that would prevent every terrorist attempt in this country. It could be done, but not in a country that values freedom. One of the safest places I've ever been is Cuba, where there are informers in every neighborhood, police on every block in busy areas, no freedom of speech or press or assembly. It was the only country, I've been told, where security was not tightened at the U.S. diplomatic mission after 9/11, because it was clear that no al-Qaeda attack was even remotely possible. There's an awfully high price to be paid for total security.

Good column. Since the border crossings have been dropping and crime rates along the border have been steady, why do you think this has become an issue now? I might have expected this during the worst of the economic dip a year or so ago, when the scaremongering by politicians might have been even more effective? Do you think Rachel Maddow has a point about the originators of the Arizona law having ties to white supremacist ideology? I see a pattern with this law and the Tea Partiers, whose members deny racist motives but who use racist code phrases like "people who don't want to work" and "welfare class."

I've spent time in Arizona and I believe that most of the people who are upset about illegal immigration are not driven by racist or white-supremacist motives. But I believe that some probably are.

When I was growing up in Baltimore there were whole neighborhoods where the store signs were in Greek, Italian, German and Polish. People spoke the languages that they brought with them. So why are we upset that people raised speaking spanish have signs in spanish? Furthermore, a cursory glance at US history will remind anyone that alot of those Spanish speakers were here in the US (California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas) before it was the US. Indeed, California in 1843 was still called Mexico and the Spanish speaking folks there didn't like english speaking immigrants who refused to learn spanish and convert to Catholicism. In the US we don't have suc h religious or linguistic litmus tests. Or, at least we're not supposed to according to the Constitution.

That's my inderstanding of history and the Constitution as well.

Mr. Robinson, the Pew Research Center projects that the US population will increase from the current 308 million (Census) to 438 million in 2050. Four fifths of that growth will be due to immigration and children of immigrants, according to Pew. The average immigrant's greenhouse gas emissions increase four-fold following arrival in the US. Waxman-Markey would mandate reducing US ghg emissions by 80% by 2050. Do you think that some technological deus ex machina will bail us out, or are we just going to fail to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions? And is it maybe irresponsible to advocate amnesty without concurrently putting policies in place to stabilize the US population?

I've never really been a fan of population-control policies of any kind -- people should make their own decisions about how many children to have, and birth rates always decline as women's education rises. One other way to look at immigration -- legal and illegal -- is that it's the only thing that gives us a chance to avoid the economic sclerosis that faces Europe and Japan. Immigrants are young and they have children; this keeps our population from aging as rapidly as in other industrialized societies, which means more people of working age to pay for the retirement of all the old people. (Spoken like a Baby Boomer, I guess.)


Anyway, my time is up for today, folks. Thanks for tuning in, and see you again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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