"Border Wars": Good Reading for Those Looking to Widen Their Lens on the Borderlands

By Jerry Kammer, January 23, 2012

I just finished reading Tom Barry's new book, Border Wars, which grew out of his 2010 article in the Boston Review that was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in the public service category.

I recommend it highly, especially for those restrictionists who are willing to consider a view from the other side of the debate if it is informed by the sort of strong reporting and deep perspective on the border that have long characterized Barry's work. See, for example, his Border Lines blog.

Restrictionists are understandably exasperated by advocates of illegal immigrants who seem to believe that if some immigration is good, more can only be better – regardless of its legality – and that those who want to restrict it must be motivated by racism, xenophobia, or sheer cussedness.

This belief has a corollary on the other side of the debate, where some seem to believe that we can't have too much border enforcement, regardless of its effectiveness or expense. Barry makes a strong case that much of the buildup, particularly the enormously expensive system of borderlands prisons to house illegal immigrants, is a waste of resources.

I should make two things clear. First, I have long respected Tom Barry's work. I admire his honesty, integrity, and talent as a researcher and writer. I also admire his willingness to stand up against the mendacious 2008 campaign to label CIS and other restrictionist organizations as hate groups. Most reporters who wrote about the hate group designation did so unquestioningly, thereby becoming stooges for its architects at the Southern Poverty Law Center, National Council of La Raza, and America's Voice. Barry called them out. I wrote about that here.

Second, like Barry, I believe that the federal government's border enforcement programs are driven more by a determination to wage politics than by an effort to design effective policy against illegal immigration. To build up the border while failing to impose a credible scheme of worksite enforcement is hypocritical and self-defeating, as well as hugely expensive.

Barry is especially effective in uncovering the story of the profiteering of the border-prison industry. And he skewers the politicians who, at a time of deepening fiscal crisis, continue to throw money at almost anything that wears the "border security" label.

Barry is merciless in his evaluation of Arizona's Republican political leadership. And he draws on an arsenal of facts and figures to present his case.

But he fails to report some fundamental facts that would help mitigate the overall impression of inexcusable anti-immigrant extremism. It would have helped if he had observed that the state's fury about illegal immigration must be understood by its rapid growth. According to the Department of Homeland Security, Arizona's illegal immigrant population soared from 88,000 in 1990 to 560,000 in 2007, before declining to 470,000 in 2010. Such growth, driven primarily by poorly educated and unskilled workers from rural Mexico, has caused tremendous problems on many levels. Those problems, decried by many Arizona Latinos, have far more to do with the state's broad-based backlash against illegal immigration than nativist hostility.

There are other places in the book where Barry's reporting is unbalanced. For example, he treats as established fact a professor's assertion that illegals pay more in taxes than they consume in services. He should at least have acknowledged the large body of research that suggests otherwise.

Still, while the book will at times be exasperating for those whose activism against illegal immigration is grounded in well-informed, non-racist concerns about its social and fiscal consequences, it will also be an eye-opener for those who are willing to acknowledge that there are good arguments on the other side of the debate. Tom Barry is required reading for those who are willing to widen their lens on the endlessly frustrating and fascinating U.S.-Mexico border.