August 10, 2008

Editorial - Sen. Cornyn is right to question why California gets more agents than Texas

Politics is never far from our immigration policy
Sen. Cornyn is right to question why California gets more agents than Texas

Is politics the driver behind allotment of immigration enforcement resources? That's what Texas Sen. John Cornyn and others suspect as they see the number of agents assigned to the relatively short California border with Mexico as opposed to the agents assigned to the long stretches of Arizona and Texas borders.

There are, in fact, four times the number of agents in California as compared to Texas and three times the number assigned to Arizona. The Border Patrol says it's all driven by intelligence, not by politics. Cornyn isn't ready to buy it. "They say they have a formula, but I'm not convinced or persuaded that this is altogether a rational distribution of resources. There's a certain amount of whoever screams and yells gets taken care of first."

Cornyn is right to question the distribution of federal agents. The federal government has been lax in addressing its responsibilities along the Mexican border, allowing the burden of illegal immigration to fall on local communities. In the case of Texas, the drug gang-driven violence that has broken out in northern Mexico poses a real danger to Texas and its border communities. More agents who can do the day-to-day police work that goes with enforcing laws are more effective and far less intrusive than the border fence that has so far created much opposition in Texas border communities.

The reason for the fence is in fact driven primarily by politics, by the need of members of Congress to show they are "doing something" about immigration without actually doing much. But that isn't new to immigration policy in American history. As far back as the 19th century Chinese exclusion act, which limited immigration from China, immigration policy has been subject to the domestic politics of special interest groups, whether it is ethnic or national advocacy or business pressure, or simple popular arousal over protection of a "national culture." If politics is driving the allotment of Border Patrol agents, it wouldn't be the first time political pressure has made its face known.

Still, the contrast in assignments is curious. Staffing of border enforcement has grown dramatically in recent years, but why should the California border around San Diego have 37 agents per mile while the Rio Grande Valley and West Texas have nine over the same distance? The San Diego region is not only heavily fortified with fences, electronic devices and lighting, it is further backed by heavy manpower. Is this because one of the most adamant supporters of stricter border enforcement, Congressman Duncan Hunter, a Republican, represents the San Diego area? Federal authorities say their staffing is directed by intelligence and not by political pressure. But Cornyn ought to pursue the question and press the federal agencies to offer evidence to support their argument.

Any federal agency involved in immigration policy is no doubt under terrific pressure to deal with a pressing national problem, both from those who want it to do more and others who want it to do less. Trying to screen out political influence is difficult enough in immigration policy. Such work ought to be driven by rationale needs and Cornyn should help the federal bureaucracy sort out what those needs are.

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