It’s going to be 20 feet high. It’s going to have barbed wire on the top. It’s going to be electrified. And there’s going to be a sign on the other side saying, “It will kill you — Warning.”
— Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s plan for an electrified fence to secure the border.
Although Herman Cain later said these remarks were meant to be a joke, his border-security focus is not that far off from sentiments we have heard from politicians aiming to address recent U.S. national-security threats. Time and time again we hear alarmists’ rallying cries to seal the border anytime there is a “crisis at the border.” Worried about the Ebola virus? Seal the border. Worried about the infiltration of members of the Islamic State? Seal the border. But which border? The southern U.S.-Mexico border. Hardly anyone seems to suggest sealing the much longer northern U.S.-Canada border.
At its best the rhetoric of sealing the southern border is a political ploy that taps into the public’s fears and detracts from the issues directly related to real national-security threats. Republican candidate for Senate Scott Brown said that the spread of the Ebola virus should prompt the U.S. government to seal the border with Mexico despite not one single case of Ebola in Central America. Notably, two people in Canada were being monitored at that time for Ebola symptoms, yet there was no call by Brown to seal the Canadian border. Similarly in October when a terrorist gunman attacked the Canadian Parliament and killed a soldier, we heard a call for a strong immigration policy along the southern border; never mind that the attack occurred right along New Hampshire’s northern border with Canada.
We keep hearing how illegal immigration along the southern border is a potential conduit for terrorist groups crossing the border even though the only publicly known terrorist who used border crossing as a means of entry into the U.S. came from the north and not the south. In a recent survey sent by the Association of Mature American Citizens to more than a million older Americans, 97 percent of respondents cited as most important the need for a credible defense of America’s southern border, specifically a fence or similar barrier that ended the influx of illegal immigrants into the United States. If sealing the border is the remedy to prevent outside threats, why are efforts to secure the border disproportionately focused on the southern border?
The discussion of illegal immigration in today’s post-9/11 climate is one that is framed as a national-security crisis — a crisis intensified this September when 68,500 unaccompanied Central American children arrived at the U.S. border. Doomsayers were quick to paint the picture of a vulnerable U.S. with broken “floodgates” and waves of illegal aliens invading the country. We heard many anti-immigrant sentiments that targeted undocumented immigrant children as the “enemy” and how present levels of immigration threaten the established social order and underlying U.S. core values and identity. But what about the core values and ideals of freedom and democracy? What do we make of the words engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty? “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free … .” Very little mainstream public outcry was heard on behalf of the children and border victims who were fleeing violence.
This is not to perpetuate the idea that the United States should allow everyone in but to point out that discriminatory immigration laws can prove to be “poison in a democracy,” tarnishing America’s longstanding culture of democracy and freedom. The fence in the desert with the proverbial sign saying “KEEP OFF” as all the while the U.S. directs more time and resources on capturing, detaining and deporting economic migrants is counterproductive to U.S national-security interests and its diplomacy image. Resources dedicated to tracking down economic migrants can be focused on better intelligence networks to combat many other illegal border activities.
The national-security threat posed by illegal immigration cannot be solved by sealing the border, as it is largely a domestic issue. The causes of illegal immigration derive from complex push and pull socio-economic factors and responses to labor supply. Fixing the problem should start with removing the contradictory signs that say, “HELP WANTED” and “KEEP OUT.” Talk of sealing the border and exclusionary immigration practices detract from the larger conversation we should be having about legitimate national-security threats.
Eliel Gebru is a graduate student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.
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