Between the Lines: Thune’s fence is a bad idea

By David Lias

Earlier this week, Sen. John Thune expressed disappointment after the Senate rejected an amendment that he hoped would be added to the immigration reform bill that is currently being considered in that chamber of Congress.

Rejection of Thune’s amendment is a good thing. It’s just, pure and simple, a bad idea.

David Lias

David Lias

Thune’s measure calls for the construction of a fence of somewhat mammoth proportions to evidently try to keep people from illegally entering the United States from Mexico.

Thune’s press release describes it as “reinforced, double-layer fencing.” The senator’s amendment calls for construction of approximately 350 miles of this fencing, which was required by the immigration bill passed in 1996, as a trigger prior to Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status being granted, with the remaining 350 miles being required before RPIs could apply for green cards.

An immigration reform bill introduced by eight senators last April would grant RPI status to law-abiding non-citizens who have lived in the U.S. since December 31, 2011.

In exchange for registering and paying a $500 fee, they could work for any employer and travel outside of the country. Registered provisional immigrant status would last six years and could be renewed. After 10 years, non-citizens could adjust their status to “lawful permanent resident.”

In other words, the April legislation provides a pathway to citizenship to people who are living in the United States illegally. Opponents of the proposal have said that the estimated 11 million non-citizens living in the U.S. illegally should be required to return to their home countries.

I think it’s safe to assume, through his actions, that Thune is an opponent to the reform legislation.

Here’s what gives validity to that assumption:

  • The need for the fence is questionable. Thune states in his press release “the Senate missed this important opportunity to communicate to the American people that we are serious about securing our border and enforcing the laws that we pass.” He adds “less than 40 miles of the 700 miles of reinforced, double-layer fencing required by the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 have been constructed to date.” What he doesn’t mention is things have changed a great deal since 1996. The line between Mexico and the U.S. is now more secure than it’s been in decades.
  • In 2007, more than 850,000 people were caught trying to illegally cross the nearly 2,000-mile-long southern border from Mexico that year, and the number of Mexican immigrants living in the country illegally was at a 40-year peak, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. In 2012 nearly 357,000 people were apprehended trying to sneak in from Mexico. Why fewer than in 2007? Because not as many people are attempting the crossing. Last year Pew reported that for the first time in 40 years, about the same number of Mexican migrants (legal and illegal) returned home as arrived, bringing net migration to zero.
  • Let’s say Sen. Thune’s idea somehow magically works, and it stops all illegal immigrants from coming in. What are we going to do with the ones already here? It’s not like they disappear as soon as they step over the border: they work, they send their children to school, they have some kind of permanent address, they use health care. That means that it is possible to find them and force them to file for citizenship, pay taxes and fines, etc. – in short, all the things that regular citizens do. Registered Provisional Immigrant status is a step in that direction. Thune wants at least half of the fence constructed before RPI status is triggered. It’s a condition that offers no solution to the illegal immigration problem existing inside U.S. borders.
  • Amnesty for the 11 million undocumented workers living in the U.S. is good for the economy. Using economic projections from the Congressional Budget Office, RaúlHinojosa-Ojeda, director of the North American Integration and Development Center at the University of California at Los Angeles, calculates that a comprehensive immigration plan this year that includes a way for undocumented workers to gain legal status would increase tax revenue by $4.5 billion or more over three years, and increase gross domestic product by $1.5 trillion over 10 years.
  • “Unfortunately, each time Congress has tried to fix our immigration system, promises to secure our border are never upheld,” said Thune in his press release. The senator is stretching things a bit. President Barack Obama has poured money and resources into border security. In his first term, he spent $73 billion on immigration enforcement. That’s more than the budgets of all other federal law enforcement agencies—the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals Service—combined, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group. (Bush spent $37.4 billion on immigration enforcement in his first term and $60 billion in his second.)

If my math is correct, A 700 mile fence with a $7 billion price tag costs $10 million per mile. Currently, the Lewis & Clark Water System, which has been a dream for planners in our neck of the woods for decades, is only partially complete. It is unable to move forward because of a lagging commitment on the federal level. The estimated cost for completing the water project construction is roughly $202 million. Or, about 20 miles of fence.

Where would you rather see the money spent?

To reiterate: Rejection of Thune’s amendment is a good thing. It’s just, pure and simple, a bad idea.

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