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David Neiwert: The Border Security Sham

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Editor’s Note: This post was written by author and investigative journalist David Neiwert, a good friend to America’s Voice. Dave is also senior editor of the political blog Crooks and Liars. Tomorrow, Dave will join us for a Google Hangout at 1 PM ET to discuss his latest book: And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border.  RSVP for the Google+ Hangout here.

Back in the days when he was a media darling appearing on every network – before everything would collapse in an appalling heap of criminality – Chris Simcox would promote his border-watching “Minuteman” movement as an essential component of national security because of the ominous threat that terrorists might cross over the border into the USA from Mexico.

“It is frightening to think that just one terrorist hiding among thousands of illegal immigrants who come across the border each day could easily carry chemical, biological or even nuclear materials into the U.S.,” Simcox told a reporter in 2005. “At this point, it’s not a question of ‘if’ but of ‘when.’”

Naturally, this was the entire purpose of his organization. “While officials are talking, Minutemen are acting,” said Simcox pronounced. “They need to put our money where their mouth is, and start doing something about our borders.”

Simcox also had something of a paranoid streak about the borders: “Take heed of our weapons because we’re going to defend our borders by any means necessary,” he told an audience in 2003. “There’s something very fishy going on at the border. The Mexican army is driving American vehicles — but carrying Chinese weapons. I have personally seen what I can only believe to be Chinese troops.”

For Simcox and the Minutemen, the rubric of reason for the “citizen border watches” they organized all revolved around “national security” – at least when the TV cameras were on. When they were off, it was a different story: Minutemen border watchers were fond of explaining in private to people they thought were fellow participants that the best solution to stopping “the invasion” (as they liked to call it) of Latino immigrants they hoped to catch in the act was to start shooting one or two of them.

One of them even explained it on camera once: “No, we ought to be able to shoot the Mexicans on sight, and that would end the problem,” he told a reporter. “After two or three Mexicans are shot, they’ll stop crossing the border. And they’ll take their cows home, too.”

There was always a problem with the claim that the Minutemen were about “border security’: If that was their chief concern, then why weren’t they focusing their efforts on the 3,000-plus miles of border the country shares with Canada? After all, when it comes to terrorists crossing our borders with intent to bomb – and not merely entering the U.S. via airport with false papers, as the 9/11 plotters did – the only known case fitting that description was on the Canadian border: In 1999, when “Millennial Bomber” Ahmed Ressam was caught in Port Angeles, Washington, with a carful of bombmaking materiel and plans for striking Los Angeles in hand. The Ressam case is particularly instructive, because it revealed that – in contrast to Mexico, where no Al Qaeda cells have been known to exist – there exists an established network of Islamist operatives in Canada.

Simcox, of course, had an answer for that: Within a year of the Minuteman Project’s national debut, he would be organizing citizen watches along the Canadian border as well, most notably in Washington state near the crossing at Blaine. That didn’t turn out too well, either.

It was, first of all, a mere smokescreen, as reporters found when they ventured out to the Canada border watches. No one was out to catch terrorists sneaking over the border (which, after all, comprised only a six-foot-wide ditch in some places); they were there to catch reporters who would dutifully repeat their “border security” schtick – which in turn became the common way for nativists to describe their chief concern when it came to immigration. It sounded innocuous and devoid of ethnic xenophobia, when it was in truth neither.

Because if you spent any time with these Canada border watchers, you pretty quickly ascertained that what had them agitated was not skilled white Canadian laborers sneaking over the border through the ports (which is actually fairly common) but Latino immigrants sneaking over the Mexico border. Those were the “illegal immigrants” they were out demonstrating against.

“Border security” was just a verbal rubric pasted over the real source of these nativists’ anxieties. It was a coded phrase for the underlying intention: “Keep out the brown people.”

Seven years down the road, that reality hasn’t changed a bit. What has changed instead is an electoral landscape where it’s becoming increasingly clear that the need for comprehensive immigration reform has become inescapable, but when faced with legislation to achieve it, those same nativists and their Tea-Partying cohorts in Congress continue to revert to the same old saw: “We need to secure the border before we can pass reform.” And it still means the same old thing.

What, exactly, do they mean by “border security”? It’s hard to pin down the exact definition of a “secure border” – reflective of the fact that it is a coded phrase – but in the hands of various Congressional Republicans, what emerges is a fantasy portrait of a militarized fortress-style border with Mexico secured by a towering fence and the constant buzz of manpower patrolling it. In the immigration-reform bill passed by the Senate (but still bottled up in the House), the legislation requires construction of 700 miles of new double-walled border fence and 20,000 more Border Patrol agents to man it.

Notably, these proposals all envision such a facility along the 1,954 miles of border the United States shares with Mexico. No such fence is envisioned for 5,525 miles of border that we share with Canada – even though, when it comes to national security, we already know which border terrorists are likely to cross. And it’s not the southern one.

Of course, building a second fence two and half times as long as that proposed for the Mexico border would be outrageously expensive – especially when the latter already fits that description.

Indeed, what would taxpayers be getting for their “border security”? In 2007, the non-partisan Congressional Research Office conducted a study that put the costs for constructing and maintaining a 700-mile fence to be $49 billion. By the time any construction begins, those costs are likely to be in the $75 billion to $100 billion range. Yet, as a column in Forbes recently examined, the number of illegal border crossers caught or deterred by such a fence will number only about 100,000 annually – which works out to a cost of about $40,000 per immigrant caught.

Moreover, it will at best only put a dent in the problem. That’s because about 40 percent of all undocumented immigrants come here legally to begin with, through various kinds of visas, and then simply never leave. Another significant percentage of them arrive through human-smuggling operations that are not deterred by fences.

As Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told the Forbes reporter: “Simply stated, a fence is a 14th century solution to a 21st century problem.”

Moreover, insisting on emplacing “border security” before providing a sane and legal path to citizenship for millions of immigrants is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. Border security is only realistic when one’s borders are not overwhelmed, and it can’t be achieved until the conditions that overwhelmed the Mexico border – particularly the trade policies that damaged the Mexican economy and drove millions of people out of work there, along with antiquated immigration laws and policies ill suited for a modern nation competing in a 21st-century global economy – are brought under control. Comprehensive reform at least begins that task.

The public seems to believe so as well. A recent Wall Street Journal-NBC poll found that 59 percent of Americans (including 79 percent of Latinos) aren’t buying the “border security” sham, either – they believe Republicans are using the issue as “an excuse to block reform”.

Yet to hear conservatives address the issue, you’d think it was still 2005 and Chris Simcox and his Minutemen were still leading the debate on immigration.

They’re not, of course, and that’s because the toxic brand of politics practiced by the Minutemen led inevitably to their downfall. As my book And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border elucidates in great detail, the movement split apart amid egotistical turf wars and accusations of financial fraud and mismanagement, and then finally crumbled apart after a movement leader named Shawna Forde (who first joined up during those Canada border watches) led a home-invasion robbery on the Arizona border that resulted in the murders of an Arivaca man and his 9-year-old daughter in 2009. Other Minutemen and border watchers have, since then, been embroiled in even more criminality and mayhem, including another murderous rampage in 2012 in which a neo-Nazi border-watch leader in Arizona gunned down his girlfriend and her family.

Perhaps the final fitting coda for the whole Minutemen episode came last month, when Chris Simcox himself was arrested on three counts of child molestation involving young girls under the age of 10, one of them being his own daughter. So much for keeping American families safe.

Sadly, the whole Minuteman saga fits in neatly with the long history of nativism in the United States, which has produced nothing but a legacy of misery, death, and suffering – not to mention a reactionary and bureaucracy-laden immigration system that virtually ensures that our borders will be dysfunctional, and a cultural milieu that terrorizes and oppresses the vulnerable. That was as true when anti-Irish gangs that roamed New York City during the era of the Know Nothings as it was when the Minutemen prowled the border in camo gear, watching out for brown people from Mexico.

These movements have always been fond of wrapping themselves in the flag of patriotism and waxing wroth about whatever fears are popular in the American imagination at the time. Today it is a fear of terrorism and insecure borders that they seize upon and exploit as a smokescreen for their deeper fears – namely, that white people will cease being the dominant ethnic group in America. They have been promoting this claptrap for nearly a decade now, and as time has worn on, it has become more and more transparent that it is a thin excuse for keeping out brown people.

So when you hear a Republican rhapsodizing about the need to “secure the borders,” ask him or her: Does that include the Canada border? Just as it did with the Minutemen, their responses will be revealing. And what they will always reveal, inevitably, is that their fearmongering is nothing but a sham.