Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Border Fence: Horrible Deal At Cost Up To $40,000 Per Illegal Immigrant Apprehended

Forbes July 18, 2013 by Richard Finger There are few topics today that arouse more passionate debate than the current immigration reform bill which though recently passed by overwhelming majority (68-32) in the senate most probably will, according to the political cognoscenti, languish in our fractious House of Representatives. Not only is this not a new issue, it has been tackled through various iterations over the past three quarters of a century. The Bracero Program from 1942-1964 was designed to alleviate wartime labor shortages in the agricultural sector. Workers were often taken advantage of through very poor wages and abysmal living conditions while unions offered strenuous objections over American workers being displaced. The H-2 visa program guarantees guest workers a minimum wage and other protections and at the end of the contract period that person returns to his or her country of origin. In the “Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986” sitting President Ronald Reagan famously offered immediate blanket amnesty to an estimated 2.8 million illegal immigrants and a simple five year path to citizenship. (I will come back to this). In 2004, President George W. Bush’s proposal to mend our nation’s immigration cleavage through “Fair and Secure Immigration Reform” foundered. Fast forward to 2013 where President Obama faces the tough challenge of placating intractable political tribes, each huddled inwardly in coveys and, many of whom, in my opinion, are much more concerned about survival of midterm elections than really taking the time to understand the nuance of this very important issue. How many of our politicians have actually gone to Texas and California and spent time on the border? Republicans have pre-conditions of a “secure border”. What does that mean exactly? Democrats presumably see 11 million potential voters which is an equally simplistic view. Almost always, when dealing with a far reaching “hot button issue” such as immigration, the reality is far more complex and subtle than a simple black or white position postulated in many of the media reports. To write this article I talked with two people who have informed opinions on this issue that will impact our great nation for generations to come. I interviewed Mr. Gary Jacobs, a successful Laredo Texas businessman and from there I secured what turned into a very long conversation with Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar of Texas’s 28th district which encompasses a significant swath of the Texas-Mexico border from Laredo and 150 miles south to McAllen. Congressman Cuellar is one of but a handful of “blue dog” Democrats that has often been willing to risk his party’s wrath to step across the aisle and engage in constructive dialogue with Republicans. Mr. Jacobs, a lifelong Texas resident, has called Laredo home since the mid 1960’s. He was Chairman and CEO of Laredo National Bank from 1976 to 2005 when it was acquired for $850 million by Spain based BBVA (Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria). As an international banker promoting commerce with one of our country’s three most important trading partners Mr. Jacobs has spent a lifetime understanding the social, cultural, political issues of Mexico and promoting economic ties and bilateral trade between the two countries. This will be a three part article of which part one will discuss the logistics, economic impacts, and practical ramifications of building a 700 mile border fence. Subsequent material will look at the reality of hiring an extra 20,000 border patrol agents. And then these experts will give their views on what it means to effectively grant amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants. Some discussion of Homeland Security current policy will be debated and whether or not there exist more efficient ways to deal with illegal immigration, a problem that sooner or later must be faced, and our answer which will effect this nation for generations to come. Richard: Mr. Jacobs and Congressman Cuellar, thanks for taking the time to discuss what has become a very polarizing issue in America today. Both of you spent half a century or more living in Laredo….. can you share some insights into what is happening in Washington regarding the immigration bill? Jacobs: What the republicans are proposing is not only outlandishly expensive, from my perspective it is absolutely impossible to completely secure our border in a way envisioned by Republicans. Richard: You are referring to the proposed extra 700 miles of proposed fencing and the extra 20,000 more border patrol agents. Jacobs: I think the new plan calls for a double-layer fence which translates to two parallel barriers on either side of a corridor manned by Border Patrol. First, it doesn’t matter how many fences you build, how high, how thick, if people want to get in they will find a way. Second, and I can only speak to the area from El Paso to Brownsville….that is impossible to totally seal off. The physical challenges there are insurmountable. Look on a border map and explain to me how you would propose to interdict on Lake Amistad, or Falcon Lake……or Big Bend National Park which people don’t realize is over 1,250 square miles, bigger than Rhode Island and has mountains that have several thousand feet of vertical height. Richard: You mention that illegals will find some way to circumvent the fences. Jacobs: Yes. The ingenuity of smugglers is always steps ahead of law enforcement. Boatloads of immigrants will be bussed on boats into the Gulf of Mexico and dropped off on Padre Island. Or watch the migration flow north to the Canadian border where there are no fences and security is extremely lax compared to Texas….and there is 3,000 miles of it. Some of the 9/11 terrorists came through Canada, if you recall. Richard: You referred in your opening statement to the cost of the fence. Jacobs: It is impossible to pin down exactly, but there are some estimates. In a 2007 study the non-partisan Congressional Research Office pegged the bill to construct and maintain (for 25 years) a 700 mile fence to be $49 billion. This is the same type of double fences contemplated in today’s bill. That was six years ago…..materials and labor prices have increased and then there is my “law of government”……..things always take longer and cost more, usually much more, than they tell us. So what’s the cost today….you pick a number. And that’s just the beginning. We haven’t tallied the costs for all the new ancillary surveillance paraphernalia; unmanned aerial drones, helicopters, radars, night vision goggles, high tech cameras, airboats, blimps, other high speed power boats, who knows what else…..and then factor all the costs of maintenance on this high tech equipment…..over time it’s well into the billions. Cuellar: Gary, your points are well taken. When I was on Homeland Security Committee I put forth some simple questions. How much does one mile of fence cost versus one mile of technology (high frequency sensors, etc.) A mile of technology costs $1 million while the fence is many many multiples of that. I then wanted to know if statistics are available that could tell whether technology or fences were more effective at securing our borders. The answer was it was hard to have an idea. A fence, even the double fence contemplated gives law enforcement maybe a minute or less to react and apprehend. Richard: Besides the enormous expense, why else don’t you favor a fence? Cuellar: Simply stated, a fence is a 14th century solution to a 21st century problem. Gary is right, if the fence is an impediment undocumented aliens will find another way. According to Homeland Security, 40 percent of all undocumented aliens came here legally on some type of work or student visa. They just never went back home. Of the other 60 percent many were brought in by smuggling operations. It is troubling that some politicians pontificate on sealing a border when they live 1,200 miles away and have not spent an adequate amount of time to visit and understand the terrain or the local dynamics. Jacobs: A giant issue that nobody brings up are the environmental impacts of a fence right up against the Rio Grande. The river provides the water for the roughly 7 plus million people that live on either side of the border from El Paso to Brownsville. The Rio Grande has hundreds and hundreds of significant tributaries that flow into it. Water always seeks its lowest point. Any solid contiguous fence, especially the double type fence contemplated, would impede water flow and effectively create what amounts to water being dammed up. Not only would the water back up, all the debris like rotten wood and tree branches will leave areas looking like hundreds of beaver dams. If our government is planning on leaving spaces where these waterways exist to let water flow naturally, then people could get through too… if that’s true, what’s the point of a fence? Further evidence of the impracticality of this project is there seems to be no consideration of the massive flooding that occurs in the (Rio Grande) valley. It doesn’t rain often, but when it does come…….we often have bursts of 5 to 10 inches or more…..and the river gets high and fierce and escapes its banks. Unless the geniuses in Washington plan on digging concrete footings five, eight feet into the ground next to the riverbank, these fences will get washed away with the first big flood. The river also rages on the occasions water is released from (lake) Amistad. Add billions to whatever repair bill the senators had in mind. I almost forgot a major point. With all the resulting mini dam’s that will form, normal drainage in the main source (the Rio Grande) would change…the watershed would be altered….as a lot of water gets stuck on the U.S. side (of the border). The U.S. and Mexico share rights to the river’s water per the 1944 US-Mexico Water Treaty. It governs both the Rio Grande and the Colorado (river) and delineates riparian rights and specific acre feet water allocations. Under our “fence plan” the Mexican side of the border would certainly be shortchanged……..a huge potential problem. If this thing has to be (built), then build it along the highways a thousand or two thousand feet inland. There are checkpoints there already, and a barrier there would, in my opinion, be much easier to enforce and far cheaper to construct. That said, I want to be on record that I find all fences socially and politically offensive……they hark of East and West Berlin. Richard: That’s pretty powerful. What other negatives for the fence? Cuellar: I recently visited Mexico a week or so ago, and had a chance to visit my counterpart senators and congressmen. I have to tell you they are mystified by our obsession to create this giant barrier between our countries. Some are having some hard feelings about a neighbor who is supposed to be a friend. Consider this; $1.2 billion of goods cross the Texas border from Mexico daily. 44.91 percent of all U.S. Mexico trade comes through my district at Laredo. This trade is directly tied to six million U.S. jobs. There are those in Mexico who view this fence as an extremely hostile act. I currently sit on State,Foreign Operations, a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. Our mandate is to dispense aid to countries around the world. According to Congressional Research Service, in fiscal year 2012, we gave over $1.5 billion annually to Egypt in total funding and over $2.5 billion to Pakistan. In the same year, we provided neighbor Mexico just $281 million. Bottom line is that Mexico is a friend and a huge net positive for America. Gary: Let’s have a look at some numbers and see what value we will be getting for our money. Right now there are an estimated 11 million illegals in America today….which is down from over 12million in 2007. Between March 2007 and March 2009 the average numbers of illegals crossing our borders was 150,000 down from peaks of 500,000 annually earlier in the decade. It should be quite obvious that the flow of illegals corresponds with the health of the American economy. As we bottomed and the construction industry dried up in 08 and 09 immigration tailed off proportionately. Now that our economy is on somewhat better footing, illegal crossings are up marginally, though nothing like earlier levels. The net flow for the last couple of years though has been flat… many people are returning as those that are arriving. Most of these facts came from the Pugh Hispanic Center. Let’s now assume that over 25 years we spend $75 to $100 billion on the fence, the equipment, maintenance, etc. The next step is that we will guess that without the new fence 200,000 illegals will arrive annually. After this new fence is built many estimates say the number of illegals entering the US would fall by half, to 100,000. So over 25 years the fence prevented 2.5 million people from coming to America illegally. At $100 billion in cost that comes out to $40,000 per illegal… $75 billion the number is $30,000. Richard: Put that way it’s not a lot of bang for your buck. Cuellar: No it’s not. Did you know that only 58 percent of undocumented aliens are of Mexican descent? According to the Pew Research Center 23 percent are from other Latin American countries while 11 percent come from the area of the Pacific Rim and Asia. To hear the polarizing forces speak today…..some make it sound like Mexico is 100 percent of the problem. As a past member of Homeland Security, I understand first hand a secure border is absolutely critical……but to erect a fence that which there is no measurable data to estimate its ultimate efficiency, is little more than an extravagance that reaps minimal benefits for America. Richard: Gentlemen, thank you both.

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