Reacting to the American public's mounting frustration, both political parties now make much of "border security," by which they mean militarizing, to some extent, the U.S.-Mexico border. But few try to explain what kind of security, and against what, any given measure—from a "virtual" fence to armed guards—would provide. Fewer still have asked why, after decades of ever tighter security, the Mexican border gives greater cause for worry. Remarkably, until the 1960s just about no one worried about the Mexican border, though it was entirely unguarded.
A friendly border is like oxygen: when you've got it, you don't think about it. Only when you lose it does its importance seize you. But by then it is difficult to remember the fundamental truth: if borders are friendly, you don't have to secure them; and if they are unfriendly, you must pay dearly for every bit of partial security, because ever harsher measures produce ever greater hostility.
Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War gives us what may be history's most poignant description of how a hostile border proved disastrous to a great power. In the war's 19th year, Sparta put a small garrison in Decelea, in their enemy's backyard, which, Thucydides tells us, "was one of the principal causes of [the Athenians'] ruin." "[I]nstead of a city, [Athens] became a fortress," with "two wars at once," and in a few years was "worn out by having to keep guard on the fortifications." Having lost a friendly border, Athens turned itself inside out trying to secure an unfriendly one.
Today's troubles on the Mexican border augur a similar deterioration in our peace at home as well as in our geopolitical situation. Mexico's war on drug trafficking and friendship with the United States since 2000 have been historical anomalies that Mexico is even now reconsidering. Next year, its presidential election is likely to bring into office an administration that will radically decrease cooperation with the U.S. and, as a result, allow increased freedom for the drug cartels on the Mexican side, who will transfer their murderous warfare north of the border. The next Mexican government is also likely to support some American politicians' efforts to transform Mexican immigrants into yet another aggrieved "racial" group—though they are not even a "race" much less a repressed one—further poisoning American politics. The new government may even align Mexico with Iran, Venezuela, and other countries that wish America ill.
To imagine what such a shift on the international scene could mean, one need only remember that in the 1970s and early '80s Mexico very nearly granted the Soviet Union consulates in ten border cities with the U.S. Or that American public opinion shifted decisively in favor of world war in 1917 when an intercepted telegram raised the prospect of German foreign aid to Mexico in order to reconquer the American Southwest. The prospect that a truly hostile Mexico may soon be added to the other problems that have bedeviled our ruling class should sober Americans' attitudes about the border.
Instead, talk of "border security" substitutes for serious thought. It conflates the fact that some illegal border-crossers seek work, others want to immigrate, a few are smuggling drugs, and fewer still may have terrorism in mind. Yet understanding our border problems requires distinguishing the choices we must make about immigration, labor, drug trafficking, and terrorism. Overarching each part of the problem is the question of America's relationship with the Mexican people, with whom we share a 2,000-mile border, and who are relatives of a substantial part of our population. It should not be necessary to point out that the following is not an argument for the libertarian option of "open borders," much less for the Democratic Party's not so secret agenda of "amnesty" (meaning voting rights) for illegal immigrants.
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano's confidence that the two governments are "going to get that border right" could not be more misplaced. Politicians north and south of the Rio Grande are making (mostly inadvertently but nonetheless inexcusably) a hostile Mexican border more likely every day. On our side, the Right—bolstered by footage of Mexicans scaling border fences—portrays "illegal immigrants" as harbingers of crime and drugs, here to rob us of jobs and overload our welfare system. Meanwhile the Left maintains that the majority of Americans are racists because they balk at granting voting rights to illegal immigrants. Both narratives fuel an equally poisonous view, increasingly popular in Mexican politics: All the gringos are racists, from the greedy businessmen who exploit Mexican labor to the lazy unions that restrict it. The gringos are rotten with drugs and the billions they pay to traffickers have turned Mexico's cities into war zones. And they have the gall to blame Mexico. To hell with them!
Immigration and Citizenship
Truth is, most illegal border crossers are not "immigrants." They do not come to stay, much less for American citizenship. They are overwhelmingly young men who have left their women behind, and who yearn to get back to them. They have no intention of living the rest of their lives without their families. Most do not come with any desire to take part in American life. Mexico has given them little if any understanding of "citizenship," and they do not have the time or energy to start thinking about it here.
Having run a farm in California for some years, I have come to know countless illegal Mexican workers. They scarcely imagine themselves citizens of Mexico, much less of the United States. Many from places like Oaxaca barely speak Spanish and have very little interest in anything beyond making some money for their families for a few years. The U.S. towns and cities where they live are dotted with shops that wire cash to Mexico. Other workers, who managed to come with their families before the border turned dangerous in the mid-1990s, have wider horizons and less pressure to return. Time and integration into non-seasonal trades have made some into de facto permanent residents. But even among these, few want to think of themselves as Americans. Unlike the schools that taught earlier generations of immigrants, their children's kindergartens, primary schools, and high schools don't try to assimilate them into an attractive culture. Some Mexicans so dislike the dissolute attitudes their children bring home from school ("they just learn to be criminals") that they send the kids (natural born U.S. citizens who travel legally back and forth) to school in Mexico. Although the American welfare state's agencies seek out Mexicans as clients, most—especially those just arrived—tend to rely on their own community.
In the past, generations of foreigners became Americans because they wanted to, and because American society demanded nothing less. True citizenship in America can only be based, as Abraham Lincoln put it, on becoming "flesh of the flesh and blood of the blood" with the American Founders by agreeing with "that old Declaration," which says "all men are created equal." Millions of immigrants—myself gratefully included in 1962—expressed the desire to be part of the founders' America, and passed an oral and written test, in English, on its history before we took the oath of allegiance to the Constitution. Today, America's ruling class wants to cheapen citizenship. It seeks not citizens but clients to whom it can grant voting rights in exchange for political support. For this elite, "that old Declaration" just gets in everybody's way. But most Mexican illegals aren't interested in citizenship, whether cheap or expensive.
Fencing In and Out
Yet increased border control is turning some of these labor-seekers into de facto maladjusted immigrants. The United States Border Patrol was created in 1924 to enforce Prohibition. In the decades following World War II, border enforcement was basically symbolic: limited to major crossing points and based on labor union pressures to limit competition from Mexicans. Effectively, the border was open. Until the 1970s labor-seekers came north for seasonal work, went home with their earnings, and came back next season. As recently as 1992 there were only about 2,500 border agents. Today, some 18,000 of our 20,000 Border Patrol agents are stretched between San Diego and Brownsville. If all were there at the same time and spread evenly, they would be only 200 yards apart. Only in that sense is the border more secure than ever.
The current mess came about gradually beginning in the 1960s. In previous decades young Americans of nearly all social classes had done hard physical labor prior to entering their trades or careers. The fourfold increase in the rate of college attendance between 1965 and 1990 went hand-in-hand with a radical devaluing of manual work in middle-class America. Getting your hands dirty became uncool. Meanwhile, at the bottom of society, thousands of people adopted attitudes and lifestyles that made them unemployable. All this happened while the pool of working-age Americans relative to retirees was shrinking. Quickly, Mexicans and other Latin Americans were in demand not just in agriculture but in construction, landscaping, the food industry, hotels, and hospitals. Although many of these jobs were not permanent, they were not seasonal, either. Those who filled them had some incentive to bring their families, even as the border tightened. Meanwhile, America was building a welfare state to which these workers and their families could turn between jobs. All along, increased pressure from American labor unions meant more border enforcement. Because crossing the border was becoming more difficult, there was greater incentive to bring families and stay.
The U.S. government's 1986 grant of amnesty to illegal aliens did not produce many new citizens in the proper sense of the word so much as it produced "chain migration"—nominal citizens sponsoring the immigration of as many family members as possible, who crossed the border legally and became nominal citizens themselves. As the surging American economy's demand for manual labor continued to increase, the domestic supply continued to decrease. By the mid-1990s, border controls increased to the point that perhaps the majority of illegal crossings required the help of professional smugglers or "coyotes," and became too arduous to include women and children.
The post-9/11 border security measures tightened the border to the point of effectively putting the small-time coyotes out of business. More and more, illegal crossers had to rely on the people most expert in breaching the border—the drug runners, who have the very latest information on routes, the organization to move people and goods efficiently, and above all, the money to bribe the U.S. Border Patrol. Would-be laborers pay up to $2,500 in advance for a trip across, stand about a one-in-eight risk of being caught, and an unknown chance of being abandoned in the desert or of being held for ransom—all for the chance to work for $8 an hour while living on nothing so they can send money home for perhaps five years.
If two rows of what Senator John McCain called "the dang fence" were built all the way from San Diego, California, to Brownsville, Texas, across some of the world's most rugged terrain and were surveilled round the clock and "linebacked" with helicopter-borne teams that could concentrate on breaches within minutes, the effect would be to increase radically the cost of moving large numbers of people across the border. The human smugglers would have to charge amounts that mere workers couldn't justify paying for the chance to work for minimum wage. Because the smugglers are in it for money, a fence and its massive infrastructure would merely protect us against people who just want to work here—and against nothing else.
Drugs, Terrorism, and Crime
The reason why the "dang fence" and its infrastructure would do nothing to stem the flow of drugs into the United States is that America's millions of drug consumers have deep pockets. About half of the roughly $60 billion they pay for illegal drugs every year crosses the border into Mexico. A few thousand tons of cargo worth billions of dollars are easy to move, and the drug cartels can easily pass on the cost of moving them to their rich American customers.
The very same changes that decreased the supply of domestic labor in American society at the same time increased its appetite for mind-bending drugs. Drug use was rare among the roughly 4 million Americans who attended college in the early 1960s, and truly exceptional in the high schools. Today, well over half of the roughly 18 million who attend college admit to having used illegal drugs in high school, and perhaps half of these continue to use after college. According to World Health Organization statistics, 16.2% of Americans admit to having used cocaine, and 42% marijuana. The world's second highest rate of cocaine use was New Zealand's, at 4.3%. Since the early 1960s American society has moved from harshly punishing users to considering drug use a treatable disease or a youthful indiscretion (we elected a president who admitted using cocaine). Few if any parents, upon discovering that their precious ones are using, call in the police, or even cut off their kids' funds. Congress crafted the Social Security Supplemental Income program, in effect, to relieve drug addicts of the burden of earning a living. Whereas songster Tom Lehrer's "old dope peddler" sufficed in 1960 to supply America's few, marginalized drug users, by 1980 multi-billion dollar cartels were needed to supply what had become a mainstream habit. The drug supply industry is clandestine and foreign-based strictly, exclusively, only because American society continues to pretend it is making "war" on drugs when in fact it is doing nothing of the sort.
Breathless commentaries by politicians and the media about the danger of Mexican "drug violence" spilling over the border ignore the fact that drug violence exists in Mexico strictly, exclusively, only because some Mexicans fight others for the privilege of supplying America's appetite for drugs, in exchange for which their American customers give them enough dollars to pay for thugs and officials on both sides of the border. These dollars, and nothing else, are responsible for the near collapse of law and order south of the border and for the insufficiently publicized corruption on the northern side. (The Border Patrol and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau's internal investigations for corruption have risen threefold in the last three years.)
The Mexican people are confronting the unpleasant alternatives that these dollars force on them. They can—as they have done with increasing vigor since the election of the country's first conservative president in 2000—pursue drug traffickers on their side of the border almost as if Mexican policemen were adjuncts to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. But this has proved both costly and futile. The drug cartels have reacted to the pressure by fighting each other and the government for operating space, and have increased the money they spend corrupting officials. Tales of mayhem in Mexico are not overblown. The drug war has cost some 30,000 lives since 2006 and has made Mexico's northern states into a war zone, in which noncompliance with the drug cartels ensures a grisly death. The war has even disrupted and dispirited the Monterrey area, Mexico's economic engine and social model. And as transporting drugs across the border has become marginally more difficult, the traffickers have reacted by beginning to develop a domestic Mexican market.
Years of bloody effort have made no dent in the cartels' power because there is no sign that Americans will stop financing the cartels. Given the growing sense that Mexico is bleeding for the sake of an American problem while the Americans sit back and blame Mexico, the country's traditional leftist establishment, the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), is quietly but surely putting forward another alternative, namely, withdrawing from the U.S. "war on drugs" and choosing mutual nonaggression with the cartels. As the PRI has absented itself from the "war" and expressed ever-harsher attitudes toward the U.S., it has risen in the polls. The party now holds a plurality in the Mexican congress and is poised to win the 2012 presidential election. Its old-style politicians argue that relieving pressure on the cartels will reduce the violence on the southern side by freeing the drug runners to concentrate their violence and corruption within the U.S. Why not let the gringos deal with the consequences of their own habits? Why suffer for them? Mexicans know that such a modus vivendi with the drug lords would lead the Americans to tighten the border some more. But the Americans are doing that anyway.
Heads nod whenever politicians and the news media point to pictures of Mexicans scaling the border fence or scurrying through the desert as evidence of how easily terrorists could enter the United States. Of course the 9/11 terrorists entered legally. So do thousands of students every year from Muslim countries. It takes little sophistication for any terrorist organization to put together identity packages that ensure legal entry. Going through the deserts of the American Southwest is the hard way. But even the Berlin Wall's visual surveillance, constant illumination, and death strips—measures far more stringent than any security conceivable at the Mexican border—didn't prevent about a thousand people from getting through. The "dang fence" will be irrelevant to terrorism.
For the same reason, it must also be irrelevant to serious crime. Criminals, like animal predators, are few in number and go where the pickings are easiest. Although an honest Mexican laborer who can look forward only to minimum wage will balk at paying the human smugglers' high rates, a criminal will not hesitate to pay the price of admission so long as he sees far richer victims and a far more permissive environment north of the border. What Mexican criminal would not prefer to prey on rich Americans, or risk apprehension, trial, and imprisonment among them rather than in Mexico? More border security is likely to increase the proportion (if not the number) of criminals coming across even as it reduces the number of honest laborers.
Why do so many Americans demand further militarization of the Mexican border when such militarization cannot protect us from terrorism or criminals, does nothing to stop the flow of drugs, turns good labor-seekers into bad imitations of immigrants, and turns a friendly neighboring state into an unfriendly one? So-called border security is attractive because it lets Americans imagine that someone other than ourselves is responsible for several of the country's biggest problems, and that the U.S. government can deal with them in a value-free, politically neutral manner.
Yet even if our southern border were completely closed off and there were no Latin America on the other side, it would do nothing to change the fact that mind-altering drugs have become morally and politically acceptable to mainstream American society. As a society, we have recoiled from the only alternatives for sorting out drug users from the rest of us: either total legalization, meaning an unfettered cheap supply of the deadliest, most debilitating stuff, which would sort out in a Darwinian manner those who gorge on it; or serious criminalization of possession, Singapore-style, which would send users to prison for years of hard labor and corporal punishment, or to the gallows. America's assumption that restricting supply can somehow make it safe for us to tolerate widespread drug use has itself proved to be a habit-forming narcotic that has reduced our sensitivity to moral rot.
Nor would somehow magically eliminating Mexico renew American society's appreciation for manual labor and those who perform it. After all, the presence of Mexicans among us eased but did not cause our national revulsion to getting our hands dirty. Something deeper had to be at work to reverse the reverence for labor that used to be the hallmark of American life. Benjamin Franklin described America as "the land of labor," and even John C. Calhoun, in the course of an apologia for slavery, reminded his listeners (including John Quincy Adams) that he, like his father, had put his hand to the plow. Almost certainly the change in our habits of the heart has less to do with any racist feeling toward Mexicans than with the spreading myth that Americans are special, privileged persons, entitled to the good things of life without much sweat. We don't have to make things or fix them or clean them. More and more of today's Americans feel entitled, period, and when they don't get what they want, demand it of someone else.
Republicans and Democrats vie to give the impression that, if America's schools, hospitals, and social services were available only to legal residents, our welfare state would be solvent, or at least closer to solvency. The evidence? "Illegals don't pay taxes." In fact, although illegal laborers seldom pay federal or state income taxes they inevitably pay sales taxes, social security, and Medicare taxes—for which they receive zero benefits—on all but occasional labor. Even if low-income illegal laborers were to file returns, few if any would be liable to income taxes, just as half the legal population is no longer liable to them. They would be eligible for our tax system's various income redistribution programs. No, the welfare state is another problem made in America, by and for Americans.
Controlling the border is also an illusory surrogate for upholding the rule of law and good citizenship. In the modern administrative state, the rule of law is an increasingly hazy memory, and citizenship is confined to obeying rules that come down from unaccountable bureaucrats. The Congress and state legislatures, alongside such private "stakeholders" as they choose, pass so-called laws that are hundreds, even thousands, of pages long, which authorize administrative agencies to make such detailed rules as they like. Judges make up and strike down these rules as pleases them and their friends. Our schools teach increasingly that the American people have always been a blight on the planet because they have distinguished themselves from other nations. It is nonsense to think that cracking down on "illegal immigration" will renew the respect for law that mainstream American society has cast aside.
Not so long ago, our unguarded Mexican border was a sign of security and friendship. Not so long ago, the United States did not have a drug problem. Because we did not, Mexican drug cartels did not exist. Americans by and large did our own work. That may be why we did not feel threatened by Mexicans who came and went as seasonal work forces. Americans didn't start to worry about foreigners exploiting our welfare state until citizens had already done so. Nor did Americans worry much about foreigners flouting the rule of law here until our officials, high and low, had shown the rest of us how to do it for fun, profit, and prestige. Within living memory, true citizenship, complete with flag-waving patriotism, was something that Americans expected of each other and of anyone who came to live here.
Were Americans once again to take citizenship seriously, to dismantle the welfare state's bureaucratic and psychological culture of entitlement, to dismiss the image of themselves as white-gloved administrators, and to banish America's drug culture, then Americans could safely stop worrying about our southern border.
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For Correspondence on this essay, click here.