OUR VIEW: JIM STODDER, HARTFORD COURANT, August 14, 2009
Seeing Right Through Our Own Great Wall
Despite urban legend, China's Great Wall is not visible to astronauts. But if angels are looking down, they might be laughing.
Stretching out broken and crumbling over 5,000 miles, China's Wall is a monument to political folly. And now, with even less hope of success, we are building an American version.
Built up over thousands of years and costing millions of lives, the Great Wall was able to slow, but never stop, any major invasion from China's north.
It didn't stop the Mongols in the 13th century. Their lord Kublai Kahn swept across and founded what later became Beijing, or "Northern Capital." It didn't stop the Manchus in the 17th century, who poured over to found China's last dynasty, nor did it stop the Japanese in the 20th century.
America's variation is actually a Great Fence, a 10- to 15-foot-high barrier mostly consisting of chain link topped with barbed wire. It now runs over 500 broken miles, mostly along the border between Mexico and three states: California, Arizona and New Mexico. It is projected to run twice that length, well into Texas. It is not intended to cover the entire border; a "virtual fence" with sensors and cameras will fill in the intervals.
Real or not, it is not doing much to slow down illegal immigrants. Granted, it is causing greater numbers to take more circuitous routes, and sometimes die in the desert, which some may count as a success. Actually, the recession has been vastly more successful than the fence at stemming the flow of illegals.
Homeland Security figures show that that the number of illegal migrants apprehended along the Mexican border fell by 34 percent from 2006 to 2008. Those apprehended everywhere else — at other borders and entry points or by investigation of people already here — went down by 36 percent. Our Great Wall has no clear deterrent effect.
Then why are we building it, at a cost of a couple of billion dollars so far? Precisely because it is not going to work. The political consensus in both parties is for the status quo: massive illegal migration.
The Republican Party is most obviously split, between those who love Lou Dobbs and hate illegal migrants, and the employers who say they can't live without them.
But the split in the Democratic Party runs just as deep. Working-class voters are an important swing vote, and unionized or not, they see illegals as competition. But some service unions have a membership, or depend on a client base, that is increasingly illegal.
And both parties find themselves split between local and federal government. Local politicians face the tax burden of illegal immigrants — higher school and police costs. For the federal budget, however, illegal workers are a net gain: They never get back the income and Social Security taxes withheld from their paychecks. So our national leaders may not be "for" illegal immigration, but it's not a budget problem for them.
If you don't think illegal immigration is really a problem, then America's Great Wall is your perfect solution. It provides a few billion dollars in pork to spread around the Southwest. It throws a bone to the anti-immigrant yahoos. And best of all, it's guaranteed not to work!
From an employer's or a federal office-holder's point of view, what's not to like?
President Barack Obama said last week that the country would move toward comprehensive immigration reform in 2010. If there is really a will for reform, then solutions are out there. A hard-to-fake national ID card. Some version of a guest worker program. A few wealthy employers in jail.
Waves of migration changed the face of China, ethnically and culturally, forever — just as millions of new workers are changing the face of America today. We will never stop that massive human flow, nor should we. But we can manage it, according to what's best for our country.
Or we can keep building the Great Wall of America. It makes the Chinese version look better and better — at least theirs is a tourist attraction.
• Jim Stodder teaches economics at the Lally School of Management and Technology, Rensselaer-Hartford. For three years he has taught summer courses in China, and climbed the Great Wall.