Long, Hot Summer: Border Enforcement and the Deaths of Illegal Immigrants

By Mark Krikorian on June 9, 2006

National Review Online, June 9, 2006

This week marked the start of the season for media features on illegal aliens dying in the desert. The Washington Post's entry on Tuesday was especially horrific, telling of a blameless three-year-old boy who died of dehydration and exposure as he accompanied his mother across the border. Sixty Minutes, meanwhile, reran on Sunday a more policy-oriented offering, but pegged it to the death of 18-year-old Abran Gonzales, "a quiet kid. He never hurt anybody. He just wanted to work and come back home."

The message of these stories, and the cascade of other stories we will see from the mainstream media over the next few months, is that such tragedies are the result of increased border enforcement, which, in the Post reporter's words, "funneled them onto increasingly perilous trails where temperatures are high, water is scarce and danger is abundant."

It's true, of course, that the concentration of enforcement resources near the urban areas of San Diego and El Paso over the past decade or so shifted the crossing patterns to more remote areas, especially to the Arizona desert. And while it's not clear that the total number of border deaths has actually increased (since many people were killed in traffic accidents and criminal assaults during the chaotic years when those two cities were the focus of illegal crossings), the human toll is real, and heartrending.

But are tighter border controls really the cause? Is elite opinion right in implying that we, as a nation, are responsible for the deaths of these people by trying to control our borders? If so, then perhaps the supporters of open borders are right and American sovereignty is itself a crime.

Fortunately not.

Many people share culpability for these deaths. The illegals themselves, of course, are moral agents and responsible for their actions (including endangering their children - how, unless you're fleeing certain death, can you justify risking the life of a three-year-old in a trackless wasteland?). The smugglers, many of them scum of the earth, not infrequently abandon their charges to the vultures. And the thieving elites of Mexico and the other dysfunctional societies in Latin America also share the burden.

Interestingly, the standard culprit in polite opinion - the Border Patrol - is not only blameless, but spends much of its time rescuing helpless illegals, saving thousands of lives.

We, as Americans, do share responsibility, but not in the way that fashionable thinking would have you believe. It's not border enforcement, as such, that's at fault, but rather the toxic combination of tough (or at least tougher) border enforcement with easy access to jobs.

The job magnet is strong because few businesses are ever punished for hiring illegals, making the opportunities in America worth the risk of the dangerous crossing. The amount of investigative time devoted to worksite enforcement of immigration laws fell steadily from 1999 to 2003, dropping by more than half, according to the GAO. The number of worksite arrests fell by 84 percent. And, from 1999 to 2004, the number of fines issued to employers fell by 99 percent, plummeting to a laughable nationwide total of three.

Only in the past six months, after a quarter century of scorched-earth resistance from open-borders advocates, have the two houses of Congress separately voted to require businesses to verify the Social Security numbers of new hires - and it still may not come to pass because of irreconcilable differences in the bills.

And it's not just jobs. The government at all levels has taken many actions over the past few years to make life easier for illegal aliens - the Treasury Department signaling to banks that Mexico's illegal-alien ID card is an acceptable credential for opening bank accounts; legislatures offering in-state tuition subsidies to illegals attending state universities; and city councils barring local police from using immigration law in the course of their duties.

In other words, we've told prospective illegal aliens that they'll have to risk their lives to get in, but once they're clear of the border, they're home free. With government establishing that kind of incentive structure, it's a wonder more people don't die in the desert.

While no one is pleased by the deaths, Americans like the idea that foreigners are willing to take such risks to get into our country. At a time when the ties that bind us as a people are increasingly frayed and Muslim fanatics plot to nuke us, we take some consolation in the fact that many outsiders still want to come here to live. As Gov. George W. Bush (quoted in Boy Genius) said of a remote and treacherous part of the Texas border, "Hell, if they'll walk across Big Bend, we want 'em."

But as a civilized people, we must face up to our responsibility for the border deaths and stop sending mixed messages. We face two morally consistent choices: on the one hand, we can continue to ignore worksite enforcement, but open the borders. This would bring our interior and border strategies in sync and stop forcing aliens to cross in remote and deadly areas. It would also mean the dissolution of the American republic.

Or, we can get serious about upholding the law everywhere in our country, combining strong border controls with muscular interior enforcement. This means not only more arrests and deportations, but also a comprehensive firewall strategy that would bar illegals from access to important institutions of our society - no jobs, no bank accounts, no driver's licenses, no car loans, no mortgages.

By ending the mixed messages we send illegals, we can fundamentally change the incentives they face, and the decisions they make. In this way, American people can both protect the nation's sovereignty and minimize these tragic deaths at the same time.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.