Friday, December 21, 2012

Is The Border Secure Enough To Tackle The Immigration System?

Since the mid-1980s, the U.S. Border Patrol has quintupled in size — growing from about 4,000 to more than 20,000 agents.

The government has constructed some 700 miles of fencing and vehicle barriers. It's placed thousands of ground sensors, lights, radar towers, and cameras along the border. And Customs and Border Protection is now flying drones and manned helicopters to locate smuggles and rescue stranded immigrants.

So here's the question: Is the Southwest border secure?

The statistics paint a picture that says "yes." The number of illegal crossers apprehended is at a 40-year-low, which can be partly attributed to a weak U.S. job market and improving economy in Mexico. Drug seizures continue near historic highs and violent crime in border cities on the U.S. side has gone down.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says all of those facts are indicators of progress in the right direction.

"If I were a police chief of a major city and I came in and I said we had reduced crime in four years by 70 to 80 percent, people would say, 'That's a great job'," Napolitano says. "'You're a great police chief.' If you took that and you applied it to what's been going on along the Southwest border, you'd have to say objectively the same thing."

A 'Byzantine' Immigration System

But more and more people are realizing that illegal immigration is tied directly to the broken legal immigration system, not necessarily security.

People come for work without visas because they can't easily get visas. Employers who need guest workers say it's a long, frustrating, costly process to get the workers.

Here's an analogy: Imagine immigration, especially from Latin America, as a two-lane residential street with a 20-mile-an-hour speed limit. Over the decades, it's grown to an eight-lane superhighway. But the speed limit is still 20 miles an hour. That is, visas for needed workers haven't risen along with the traffic.

"If you want to keep it at 20 miles an hour, you have to put a cop every 20 feet. And that's what the 'secure the border first' people are in effect trying to do," says Daniel Kowalski, a Texas-based immigration attorney and editor of Bender's Immigration Bulletin. He says demanding border security first is backwards.

"You need to line the border with border patrol, shoulder to shoulder, and that's just the wrong way to do it," he says. "It's too expensive. It's easier to fix the numbers, rather than militarizing the border."

Because the immigration system is so byzantine, up to half of the estimated 11 million people illegally in the U.S. came in legally, then overstayed their visas. No amount of border security would have stopped that.

How Can Security Be Measured?

Congress still wants to know whether all the resources along the border are working. There is no single objective measure of border security.

Until two years ago, the Department of Homeland Security used something called "operational control," which Arizona Republican Senator-elect Jeff Flake wants the department to keep using.

"In essence, it basically means if someone sneaks across, you have a reasonable expectation of catching them," Flake says. "We're talking about something that is achievable and measurable."

The House has passed a bill requiring DHS to use operational control, but the department says it's obsolete. The measure only counts territory where actual Border Patrol agents are located.

DHS says something it calls the Border Security Index will take into account other things as well: areas covered by technology, air power, the rate of violent crime.

It's been nearly three years since that new index was announced and it hasn't been implemented yet. Even the Government Accountability Office said last year that DHS needs to do a better job of reporting its effectiveness on the border. But, even taking that into account, almost everyone agrees the border is more secure than it was 20 or even 10 years ago.

Napolitano says people who demand complete border security before immigration reform are not being realistic.

"There's no border in the world that doesn't have some form of migration, legal and illegal," Napolitano says. "So saying it has to be zero is like saying we have to put the United States under some sort of Tupperware container and seal it off. That's not how our country operates."

Many lawmakers who've been blocking it now seem to realize that some sort of comprehensive immigration reform is necessary. The political reality is that more border security — or at least more accountability — is still likely to be part of any legislation.


Amnesty decries migrant exploitation in Italy

An informal penalty for lawbreaking?

A new report from Amnesty International is alleging widespread exploitation of foreign migrant workers in Italy, saying they often receive less than the minimum wage and sometimes are not paid at all.

The international human rights group said Tuesday that two visits to Italy this year, mainly in southern farming areas, confirmed other studies that also found a "pattern of labor exploitation" of migrants across Italy. Amnesty said migrant workers are frequently paid much less than Italians doing the same job.

Migrant workers, both legal and illegal, work mainly in farming, tourism and construction in Italy.

The group credits Italian investigators for prosecuting some "extreme" cases of exploitation cases, but contends less serious abuses often go unpunished.

The report focuses on migrant workers from Africa and Asia.

"Amnesty International's research found evidence of instances of widespread and/or severe labor exploitation, in violation of Italy's obligations under several international conventions on labor rights, in particular wages below the minimum wage agreed between unions and employers' organizations, arbitrary wage/salary reductions, delays or non-payment of wages and long working hours," the report said.

The places researchers visited included Rosarno, a southern farm town notorious for a violent tensions between natives and migrants in 2010. At least 38 people were wounded in clashes, which began when two migrants were shot with a pellet gun in an attack the migrants blamed on racism.

Under a crackdown by former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's conservative government, which included an anti-immigrant coalition partner, formal employment contracts are required before migrant workers can obtain residence permits. Thus migrants might feel pressured to accept unattractive job conditions in return for legal permission for themselves and their families to live in Italy.

"The employer's effective power to determine the worker's migration status can easily become a tool to intimidate or threaten workers, undermining their ability to negotiate better wages and working conditions," the report said.

Amnesty International's appeal for improvement of migrant labor conditions and laws risks falling on distracted ears.

Italy's Parliament is about to be dissolved ahead of early elections, and with many politicians campaigning for government stimulus to help spur jobs for Italians during a recession, migrant labor needs are unlikely to get much political attention soon.


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