Rick Perlstein: Fencing with fellow liberals over the necessity of a wall between us and Mexico





An immigration-lawyer friend of mine recently pointed out that even a good liberal like Eric Alterman has fallen for a very dangerous bit of right-wing propaganda: that America needs a fence along the Mexican border:

"Personally, I support a fence. The current system encourages the horrific abuses that take place against immigrants attempting to sneak in. Naturally, I support allowing generous numbers of immigrants into this country, but I support doing so legally, first and foremost. I also think it encourages contempt for the law, which is a net negative in any society. (I also support the legalization of pot for the same reason.) And certainly any nation has the right to determine to whom it wishes to grant citizenship."

Alterman writes in a spirit of hard-headed humanitarianism, tough but fair. And I see nothing wrong with that spirit. But he conversely presumes nothing but gauzy sentimentality on the part of the idea's opponents--

"If a fence is the best way to enforce those choices, well, then, why not? For symbolic reasons? I don't care about 'symbolic reasons.' I care about reality."

--and this proves nothing more than my adage that if you want to be a corrective, the first thing you have to be is correct. Alterman is very, very wrong about the "reality." Some awfully fine citizens of the Reality Based Community have demonstrated just how wrong using very sound scholarly methods.

Read the work of Belinda Reyes of UC - Merced. She demonstrates in this paper that the more money we spend on law-enforcement solutions to guarding the border, the longer undocumented immigrants stay in the United States. The immigration debate has made us stupid, and you may slap yourself on the head for not thinking of this yourself but: higher fences and more cops along the border don't just make it harder for people to get in; it makes it harder for them to get out. Enforcement expenditures tripled between 1992 and 2001. A 1992 survey showed that 20 percent of the unauthorized migrants who moved to the United States returned to Mexico within six months. "By 1997, this portion had declined to 15 percent. By the time of the Mexican 2000 Census, only 7 percent of those who moved 24 months before the survey returned to Mexico wihtin the first six months and only 11 percent had returned within a year."

People who want to get into the United States, as is well-known, will show extraordinary determination to do it. Why won't any fence stop them? One reason, while we're on the subject of reality--slap your head again, because this is obvious, too--is because the portions crossing water will have to be broken up to allow debris to pass through. Or else your fence becomes, well, a dam....

[Click here to read Alterman's response.]


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