Up against the wall

By Michelle Chen Mar 20, 2009

Just days after huddling with Latino members of Congress on immigration issues, President Obama has zeroed in on the issue of border security, and the air of change is starting to smell a bit more like leftovers from the last administration. The White House is looking to dramatically ramp up border enforcement, with the ostensible aim of blocking the flow of drugs and the attendant violence in the region. The plan apparently would shift resources from one bitterly divisive arena of immigration policy to another. The Houston Chronicle reports:

Immigration officials are considering asking Congress for approval to shift tens of millions of dollars from enforcing workplace immigration laws to the anti-cartel efforts along the Southwest border, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because officials have not yet made the request to Congress. Such a request could face stiff resistance from lawmakers who want that money spent investigating employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. … The administration’s emergency intervention along the border represents a shift from the Bush administration’s emphasis on intercepting illegal immigrants and illicit drugs flowing north from Mexico.

The plans have not yet crystallized, and it’s unclear if the move reflects long-range priorities on immigration or geopolitical strategy. But a genuine break from the Bush-era border policy it is not. Then again, Obama’s stance on the border wall question wobbled on the campaign trail, too, and there’s probably more zig-zagging on border enforcement ahead. At the same time, tensions over the public costs of "securing the border" linger. In the face of plans to construct a massive fence along the Texas border, grassroots groups and human rights advocates are concerned about the unjust taking of property, threats to the surrounding habitats, and the basic humanitarian issue of shutting people out without addressing the root causes of their migration. (Not to mention doubts about the proposed wall’s effectiveness in deterring border-crossings.) Public Citizen recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of the University of Texas Working Group on Human Rights and the Border Wall, arguing that the Department of Homeland Security is withholding crucial information about the wall’s potential consequences—particularly negative impacts on poor and indigenous communities and damage to natural resources. In the current political climate, whether Washington deploys armed patrols or concrete slabs, no physical barrier at the country’s perimeter will be impervious to the mounting desperation on both sides. Image: Diane Cook and Len Jenshel / National Geographic Magazine