By ordering the deployment of 1,200 more federal troops to the border last month, President Obama seems to have bought into the conventional wisdom that reforming the nation's immigration system must wait until the borders are secure. As is often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong.
Anyone looking at a map would have to conclude that creating an impenetrable wall along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico is an unrealistic fantasy. No amount of boots on the ground is going to fix this problem. The area is too vast, it would cost too much, and even if maximum effectiveness could be achieved, would fail to deal with the estimated 40 to 60 percent of all illegal U.S. residents who enter with valid documents and overstay their visas.
As it is, the Border Patrol already has 20,000 agents in place, more than double the level of a decade ago, not to mention forces from the National Guard and other federal agencies. The strategy of massive presence on the border has reached the point of diminishing returns. It's unlikely that devoting more resources to the region will bring further gains in terms of either security or stopping illegal entry.
Well, goes the conventional thinking, a few more troops can't hurt. Actually, such actions can have -- and have had -- a harmful effect on the immigration debate. They postpone the day when legislators have to deal effectively with the problem. They create the illusion of action -- designed only to satisfy public frustration -- and thus delay the hard decisions that eventually must be made to create a modern, workable immigration system.
Paradoxically, hardening the border has had the unintended effect of boosting the demand for ``coyotes'' -- traffickers of migrants who can find their way around fences and guards. Today, immigrants who once made seasonal visits to earn dollars north of the border and then went home again are likely to stay because of the difficulty and expense of coming back across at a later date.
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