All Commentary
Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mr. Obama, Tear Down This Wall!

In its zeal to protect us from Mexicans who want to pick our fruit and clean our homes, the federal government is walling off our southwestern border. Congress passed the Secure Fence Act (SFA) in 2006, authorizing barriers along some portions of the 1,969-mile boundary; other stretches will be fitted with a “virtual” wall of motion sensors and cameras. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was supposed to have built almost 700 miles of physical fence by the close of 2008 and the Bush administration.

We can assume it fell short since the federal government is ever incompetent and has been tight-lipped about how many miles it has completed.

More people cross this international boundary each year than any other in the world—250 million with government permission, a fraction of that without. (Estimates range from 400,000 to a million.) Patches of the border, particularly urban ones, have been fenced and policed for decades. But this dotted line inconvenienced rather than stopped folks who neglected to secure a bureaucrat’s consent for their trip: Travelers trying to exercise their inalienable right to free movement simply went around the barriers. The feds never like being outfoxed, so they extended the fencing beyond populated areas. This drove migrants into increasingly remote and hostile terrain. There they not only had to survive encounters with America’s Border Patrol but also dehydration and other dangers in the desert. No More Deaths, a group that caches food and water along routes migrants are likely to take, estimates that at least 238 travelers perished in Arizona alone in 2006, with more than 4,000 “men, women, and children [losing] their lives in the deserts of the US-Mexico borderlands” from 1998 to the present.

Walling off Rights

You might think that would be tragedy enough for anyone. But as former President George W. Bush said when he signed the SFA, “We have a responsibility to enforce our laws. We have a responsibility to secure our borders. We take this responsibility seriously.” Apparently far more seriously than we do corpses or constitutional limits on government. And so the Act “authorize[d] the Department of Homeland Security to increase the use of advanced technology, like cameras and satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles to reinforce our infrastructure at the border.”

Authorizing DHS to grab more power is about as necessary as authorizing sparks to fly upward. Nevertheless, Congress exempted DHS from all federal laws as part of its 2005 REAL ID legislation. All it has to do is claim that a law impedes progress on the wall. Section 102 (c)1 of the REAL ID Act says, “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary of Homeland Security shall have the authority to waive, and shall waive, all laws such Secretary, in such Secretary’s sole discretion, determines necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads under this section.”

This immunity extends all the way to judicial review: Judges can’t “order compensatory, declaratory, injunctive, equitable, or any other relief for damage alleged to arise from any such action or decision,” according to Section 102 (c) 2B. So far the unrelieved victims have been mostly Americans whose property the agency has seized or destroyed. Surely even those most opposed to immigration would agree that stopping it does not excuse such tyranny and injustice against citizens.

Environmental Destruction

Among the many regulations DHS is ignoring are environmental ones. But Mother Nature isn’t as easily overridden. There are consequences for flouting the laws of physics, for example. And DHS’s insouciance towards things like gravity and water has already hurt the government’s own property.

On July 12, 2008, a heavy rain near Ajo, Arizona, clogged drains in completed sections of the fence, damming the downpour and flooding Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the only area in the United States where the plant grows wild. Park superintendent Lee Baiza told the Associated Press, “[We] had suggested that [DHS] take into consideration everything that can happen with a weather event. . . . We had a concern that this was going to happen.” And this storm wasn’t even a hurricane such as frequently roars through the Gulf and neighboring Texas.

The Rio Grande River separates Texas from Mexico for 1,254 miles before heading north. It waters a huge variety of wildlife, and that abundance draws conservancies to the area. Some are private, such as the Sabal Palm Audubon Center in Brownsville, Texas. Others are government-held lands that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife or National Parks Service manage. Over the decades, these organizations have cooperated with one another and the Mexican government to form a “wildlife corridor” so animals can range freely even if people can’t. The corridor also acts as a sanctuary for rare or endangered species. But DHS seems as hostile to animal life as it does to human life. It is hacking through this territory with a wide corridor of walls running parallel to one another, asphalt roads between, and hundreds of yards of cleared land to the north and south.

Barriers for stopping bipeds stop quadrupeds, too. This imperils animals that wander widely to feed or mate. Audubon Magazine points out that the inbreeding the wall compels will weaken if not exterminate America’s last colony of ocelots. This cat once roamed the Rio Grande and southern Arizona but now counts fewer than 100 members on the Texas side of the border.

A biologist at the University of New Mexico worries about other predators as well. Dr. Joe Cook told the Inter Press Service, “There is no quetion that jaguars . . . in the U.S. and northern Mexico would be significantly affected by the wall. . . . The only hope to preserve large carnivores in the wild is to have large areas of continuous, unfragmented habitat.”

The Mississippi and Central migratory flyways meet at the Rio Grande. Birds that once rested there during thousand-mile journeys will now contend with barren, paved land instead of trees, bushes, nuts, and seeds. Floodlights that turn desert night into day to discover migrants are already disorienting not only birds but bats and butterflies as well.

Financial Destruction

Matching the wall’s environmental disasters are its financial ones. In January 2007 the Congressional Research Service figured that 700 miles would cost about $49 billion, including maintenance. But as usual with the state’s estimates, this one probably isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, especially if the rest of the barrier is anything like the 14 miles that wind inward from the California coast at San Diego. The first fence there—ten-foot-tall walls of welded steel—went up in 1993. Next came a “secondary” wall, this one 14 feet high, about 103 feet to the north. A chain-link fence runs parallel to that, with “stadium lighting” throwing every ugly detail into sharp relief. This monstrosity was supposed to cost $1 million per mile, but that skyrocketed to $3.8 million. And construction isn’t yet finished, in part because the California Coastal Commission frets about erosion. The bit that remains unfenced meanders through more challenging terrain, with construction estimated to reach $10 million per mile. If the price for the other 700 miles escalates proportionally, we are looking at an outlay of anywhere from $200 to $490 billion.

There are other, more hidden expenses. For example, the Fish & Wildlife Service has spent $100 million of our money over the last three decades to buy and replant land near the Rio Grande. The wall will ruin that investment. It will also end “eco-tourism” and the $125 million that 200,000 visitors annually spend in the hopes of glimpsing an ocelot or a Muscovy duck.

Naturally, while most Americans pay for the fence, a select few profit. DHS hired Boeing to implement its Secure Border Initiative (SBI) in September 2006. The company will install 1,800 towers as a “virtual fence” on our northern and southern borders within three years to “detect and track intruders through the use of cameras, sensors and motion detectors,” as Federal Computer Week puts it—all for only $2.5 billion. Needless to say, Boeing and DHS trumpeted their lucrative deal as a revolutionary, unprecedented, sure-fire solution for the “border problem” the feds have created. But the Washington Post took a more jaundiced view, citing the government’s “series of failures [in] control[ling] U.S. borders.” So did agents on the ground. Rich Pierce, executive vice president of the Border Patrol’s union, told Federal Computer News, “[SBI]—it’s been tried and it’s failed. . . . They’re not going to try anything new. . . . The people in the field know it’s not going to work.”

So did the legislators voting the funds. Rep. Harold Rogers was chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee from 2003 until January. According to the June 26, 2006 issue of Government Computer News, he “noted that spending on border security since 1995 has ‘quadrupled from $5.1 billion to over $17.9 billion,’ and the number of agents has jumped from 5,000 to 12,319. ‘However, during this same period, the number of illegal immigrants has jumped from 5 million to an estimated 12 million,’ Rogers said. ‘The policy of more money and no results is no longer in effect. We will not fund programs with false expectations.’” That would explain his subcommittee’s handing $39.9 billion to DHS in FY2009 with Rogers’s “support,” as he proclaimed on his website, despite the agency’s reputation even among the feds as one of their most wasteful and dysfunctional bureaucracies.

Sending Property Owners to Limbo . . .

Knowing that the fence won’t stop immigration, that it merely allows politicians to look as though they’re fixing an issue they’ve ginned up into a crisis, must particularly gall the property owners losing homes and businesses. Most of those victims live in Texas since the feds already own much of the land along the other states’ borders.

The barriers have always been more of a sieve than a fence since they proceed in fits and starts with long gaps between. The new miles of fence will not be much different, according to the Border Patrol: Tom Rudd, the Patrol’s chief in Brownsville, Texas, is “expecting a total of nine miles of fence segments,” according to PBS. “The segments, Rudd says, will act like funnels, pushing migrants into areas where his agents will be waiting to capture them.”

Those funnels bisect plenty of private property, including homes, farms, businesses, and nature preserves, as well as national parks and even towns. Stunningly, they don’t line the actual border. Some of the wall lies as much as two miles north of it. Landowners whose properties fall within that region face a bizarre limbo, severed from the rest of the country—and from the services their taxes supposedly buy them. Audubon Magazine quotes the Society’s executive director in Texas, Anne Brown, on the fate of its Sabal Palm Center: “From what we’ve heard, we’ll have to close. We can’t figure a way to keep it open, because we’ll be cut off from the rest of the United States. Will we be insured? Will we receive city services? We can’t let Ernie [the caretaker] live here anymore.” The magazine adds, “The sanctuary and its unique plants and wildlife will be taken from the American people, and what survives will be, for all intents and purposes, ceded to Mexico.”

Ordinary owners in Limbo Land also face extraordinary challenges. Pamela Taylor is an elderly émigré from England who married an American soldier 50 years ago, then moved to Brownsville with him. If anyone should welcome the protection the wall allegedly provides, it would be Mrs. Taylor. She once arrived home to find a migrant hiding from the Border Patrol in her living room. But she fears DHS and its fence far more than she does people looking for jobs and better lives. “They said the fence was gonna go right across the street,” she told PBS. “And . . . my son-in-law asked, ‘Well, do you mind, how are we going to get out?’ And the fellow from the Corps of Engineers said, ‘Well, you know, we hadn’t really thought about that. I guess you’re gonna have to follow the border patrol out.’” Obviously, that enormously complicates even the simple errand of buying groceries. And it could be fatal should Mrs. Taylor need a doctor.

PBS asked the Border Patrol’s Rudd about ingress and egress for the Americans caught in this quandary. Rudd said there will be “gates” and that “we’re still lookin’ right now—at different—locking mechanisms of what’s gonna work best in certain areas. . . . [O]ne approach that I’m lookin’ at . . . is—a push-key type, you know, the—the number system, a push pad . . . enforced with a camera—so we can make sure that that number or that combination—doesn’t get compromised . . . basically work with the owner to find out who’s gonna be in that area, what kinda vehicle they’d be driving.” The government hasn’t touched Mrs. Taylor’s property and so isn’t offering even eminent domain’s pittance, but it robs her nonetheless. Her land will be worthless. What buyer wants a hassle every time he needs a quart of milk?

DHS plans to swipe some properties lying directly in the fence’s path in their entirety, particularly when the parcel is small because the owner is poor. Other times, the fence threatens only a portion of the property—but it might as well take the whole piece because once again it’s destroying the land’s value. Leonard and Debbie Loop and their children own a 1,000-acre farm in Brownsville. But the wall will exile 800 acres to Limbo Land.

. . . Unless They’re Rich or Connected

Given that the wall doesn’t follow the border, as well as its frequent stops and starts, its placement is arbitrary at best. Many victims have noticed that while DHS expects them to sacrifice their interests, it is skirting property belonging to wealthy, politically connected neighbors. One victim, Eloisa Tamez, is a 72-year-old woman who still lives on some of the 12,000 acres her ancestors received in a Spanish land grant. She’s been down this road before. The feds stole more than half her holdings in the 1930s to build levees, and they didn’t pay a dime for any of it. The Texas Observer reports that now they want more. But the wall gobbling Ms. Tamez’s home stops short two miles down the road. That just happens to be the edge of Sharyland Plantation, 6,000 acres that billionaire Ray L. Hunt is developing into a luxurious, gated community of million-dollar homes. Hunt, of course, is not only George W. Bush’s buddy but his benefactor, too, since he’s kicking in $35 million toward the presidential library. The wall resumes on the other side of Sharyland.

Under former secretary Michael Chertoff, DHS refused to answer questions from folks like Ms. Tamez. But silence has long been one of the agency’s favorite tactics. It almost always withholds information on the grounds that telling the citizens who pay its bills what it’s doing with their money would jeopardize national security. It will neither confirm nor deny who’s on its notorious Terrorist Watch List, for instance, not even to the victims themselves. And so it goes with the wall. DHS refuses to verify its plans or discuss its rationale for the wall’s route. That leaves many owners grappling with rumors and stomach-churning uncertainty. Others are fairly sure DHS will steal their holdings because it has already ordered them to sign waivers allowing surveyors to measure their property. Those who refuse find themselves facing condemnation of their land.

Chertoff tried to cast cooperating with the agency’s theft as a patriotic duty. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, he announced in February 2008, “I respect private property. But you cannot make border security and national security an individual choice for each individual landowner. . . . [W]hen people are smuggling drugs and human beings across the border, for an individual landowner to say, ‘I don’t care. I want to make sure that my view of the river is unobstructed,’ is not an acceptable answer.”

Dictatorical and Dishonest

That’s not only arrogant and dictatorial, it’s also profoundly dishonest. Protestors do not mourn vanishing vistas. They are instead defending their homes and businesses, some of which have been handed down through their families for generations. Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s unconstitutional jihads against those drugs and people it doesn’t like forces folks who want to transport either to smuggle them. Politicians have tried to control people’s movements and have failed at this immoral task; nevertheless, they expect the rest of us to cooperate with their new, desperate, criminal measures. Why?

Unfortunately, Leviathan has convinced most Americans that its campaign against “illegal” drugs justifies any and all abuses. So now it excuses its militarization of the Mexican border because of the marijuana crossing it. The feds take the same tack with “illegal” immigration. But they also spin things a bit differently to hide their heartlessness. They bewail the “smuggling of human beings,” conflating immigration with—incredibly enough—slavery.

In a speech on September 9, 2008, at the “Stop Human Trafficking Symposium,” conveniently sponsored by Customs and Border Patrol, Chertoff announced that “the line between so-called voluntary migration and human trafficking is not a very bold line. It is often the case that people who begin the movement across the border in a voluntary way . . . quickly turn into victims when they are held for ransom, or when they are required to work off the cost of the smuggling by paying off the vast majority of their wages to the smuggling organizations.” That may be exploitative, but it isn’t slavery since slaves seldom receive wages and so can’t “work off” any “cost.” And Chertoff ignores the fact that the government’s criminalization of migration gives those few entrepreneurs who do victimize their clients the chokehold they need: A “restaurant owner” who allegedly “trafficked hundreds of adults and children into the United States . . . threatened to turn them in to the authorities as illegal aliens if they tried to escape,” according to the Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune.

DHS portrays as vicious criminals guides who conduct people through hostile terrain and help them avoid the Border Patrol. The agency then presents its own ferocious attacks on immigrants, its armed patrols and cameras, its dogs, handcuffs, and holding pens, its hunts through the desert in air-conditioned ATVs for exhausted, fleeing families, as “rescuing” them from “human traffickers.” Odd, isn’t it, that migrants pay these “traffickers” to chaperone them across the border but try to fend off their “rescuers” by throwing rocks. They seldom succeed. Rather, they play right into the government’s hands: it charges them with the “crime” of self-defense, AKA, “assaulting a federal officer.” This inflates the number of “felons” crossing the border so that the feds “save” us from an even bigger menace.

An Unconstitutional Line in the Sand

Whether they’re between states or countries, borders soon cease to be noticed by most people living along them. They marry one another, establish businesses, visit, laugh, cry, agree, disagree, and dream together. So it is along the U.S.-Mexican boundary. The wall will sunder these families and friends as mercilessly as Berlin’s barricade did Germans.

The Founding Fathers understood government’s essence, its cruelty and callousness, far better than do modern Americans. That’s why their Constitution never empowers politicians to regulate anyone’s movement into or out of the country (except for slaves, fittingly enough: What else are we when we beg a bureaucrat, “Please, may I enter?”). Article 1, Section 9 bars Congress from “prohibit[ing]” the “Migration or Importation” of “such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit” until 1808. If we dismiss the doctrine of enumerated powers, this implies that Congress may prohibit all the migrating and importing it likes thereafter. And if we also dismiss the literary and historical context that limits Article 1, Section 9 to slaves, it appears the feds may indeed control anyone’s immigration after 1808—but only in those states existing at the Constitution’s adoption. None of those border Mexico, and mighty few do Canada. DHS needs to relocate its wall down the Atlantic coast.

Nor does the Constitution deputize the central government to “protect” the country’s borders, much less build walls “funneling” migrants through deadly desert where cops lurk to kidnap them. Immigration ought never to have been federalized in the first place; government had no business arrogating an “interest” in it during the 1870s, then tightening its vise each decade since. Immigration is an issue of property rights—not the DHS’s infernal abrogation of them, but a decision by the folks Michael Chertoff so despises, “each individual landowner,” as to whether migrants may cross his property.

Despite its utter lack of constitutional authority, DHS will probably continue militarizing our borders. Its current secretary, Janet Napolitano, opposed a physical wall when she was governor of Arizona. As she told AP, “You show me a 50-foot wall and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border.” Heavily implied is her support for more border agents as well as more high-tech surveillance. Napolitano is as implacable an enemy of freedom of movement as her predecessor Chertoff was, even if her methods differ.

Meanwhile, America has another border to the north, which Boeing’s contract covers as well. Landowners there should be very worried, given the abuses their southern brothers have suffered.

Indeed, all of us should worry, if not panic, when we remember that the walls keeping others out also keep us in.