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Immigration Update: The Fall of the Great Wall of Boeing

On March 16, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that she was cutting millions of dollars from SBInet, a high-tech “virtual fence” that Boeing Co. has been developing for use along the U.S. border with Mexico.  Her announcement came just two days before the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) was scheduled to issue a report on the possibility that this electronic monitoring system “will ultimately not perform as expected and will take longer and cost more than necessary to implement.”

SBInet is part of the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), a project the Homeland Security Department launched in November 2005 “to secure America’s borders and reduce illegal migration.”  In addition to developing SBInet, the plan included hiring more agents and building a physical fence on the southwestern border.  The goal, the department said at the time, was “to have operational control of both the northern and southern borders within five years.”

It was already clear in September 2008 that Boeing’s virtual fence wasn’t going to work.  Now, a year and a half later, SBInet has cost us a total of about $1.1 billion “with little to show for it,” according to the New York Times, “beyond the two testing sites in the Arizona desert and a series of embarrassments.”

SBInet isn’t the only expensive failure in our government’s effort to get “operational control” over the U.S. border.

During the past 25 years, tens of billions of our tax dollars have gone into border enforcement, and more than 5,000 would-be immigrants have died in deserts and mountains while trying to get around the stepped-up enforcement.  There’s no evidence that this has done anything to slow the rate of unauthorized immigration.  In fact, there is evidence that harsh border enforcement has actually increased the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States at any given time, since it encourages immigrants to remain here after undergoing the dangers and expenses of entering the country.

So does Napolitano’s suspension of funding for Boeing’s virtual fence mean that our government officials have finally come to their senses?

On March 18, the same day that the GAO released its report on SBInet’s failures, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Lindsey O. Graham (R-SC) announcing the latest “bipartisan plan” for “comprehensive immigration reform.”  The plan, immediately endorsed by the White House, recycles the usual verbiage about “fulfilling and strengthening our commitments on border security.”  And it has its own high-tech marvel, a biometric Social Security card that “would dramatically decrease illegal immigration, experts have said.”

The senators’ op-ed doesn’t tell us how much it might cost taxpayers to develop this biometric national ID card, or which corporations would get to profit from it, or why we should expect it to work.  If it did work, the new card would be an outrageous invasion of our privacy, but it would do no more than SBInet has done to “dramatically decrease illegal immigration.”  Like the other workplace enforcement measures of the past 25 years, it would just drive more undocumented immigrants to work off the books for even lower wages in the underground economy.

The simple fact is that unauthorized immigration isn’t going to stop as long as governments in nearby countries like Mexico follow economic policies promoted by the United States that throw millions of farmers off their farms and leave millions of workers unemployed.  David Bacon ably shows in his 2008 book Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants that this is a system that forces people to immigrate to the United States and then uses enforcement to deprive them of labor rights when they get here, driving down their wages, and ours.  It’s a system in which we all lose — except of course for the superrich.

“But we need enforcement,” the pundits and politicians tell us.  “We’re a law-abiding nation.”

It’s true: we need enforcement.  But instead of enforcing laws that have wasted billions of our dollars, caused thousands of deaths, and contributed significantly to the stagnation of our wages over the past 30 years, why not try enforcing laws that actually help us?  Let’s enforce the laws against job discrimination, for example, and the laws against sexual harassment in the workplace.  Let’s put serious money into enforcement of the minimum wage laws and the occupational safety and health laws.  And let’s enforce our laws against corruption in government.

Maybe we could even have a thorough investigation of how we ended up paying $1.1 billion for the Great Wall of Boeing.


David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Monthly Review Press, July 2007.




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