Due to the number of Central American children arriving at the U.S. border, illegal immigration has once again become the top concern among voters.
Politicians have seized on this polling data, laying out very vague plans to solve the problem. Often, they use throwaway phrases like “secure the border” and “immigration reform,” but both those phrases mean different things to different people.
What links the phrases together are two components: Illegal immigration and illegal drug smuggling.
The United States government has pumped a lot of taxpayer money into making the border more secure. Currently, there are over 21,000 Border Patrol agents serving. There is also more fencing along the 2,000-mile U.S./Mexico border than there ever has been. The USBP’s budget alone checks in around $3.5 billion annually.
Yet illegal immigrants continue to sneak through the Sonoran Desert to find work. They are often able to find it, because there is a demand for low-wage workers. Rather than trying to fight it with ineffective measures, a more permanent, productive and cost effective solution is needed.
To solve this problem, the United States should amend immigration laws to expand the number of work visas granted to foreign-born workers (currently, about 1 million people are granted residency each year). Workers would have to pass a background check and would face automatic deportation for any major crime for which they are convicted.
This guest worker program comes with no guarantee of citizenship; it has to do with meeting an economic need. Increasing the number of visas would also cut down on the number of illegal immigrants, which would make the border safer.
As a bonus, a more expansive guest worker program would cut down on the number of stolen IDs immigrants sometimes use to gain employment.
Which still leaves the real danger along the border: Drug smuggling.
In 2010, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed after a gun battle with a drug smuggling gang. Arizona rancher Robert Krentz was also allegedly killed by a drug smuggler who snuck into this country from Mexico.
Karen Gonzales, who was nearly beaten to death near the border, told NBC News, “It’s not that safe. The closer you get to the border, the more unsafe it is.”
Other ranchers say they’ve had numerous tense and dangerous run-ins with drug smugglers on their private property. Jim Clifton owns 50,000 acres along the Arizona/Mexico border.
“Imagine riding your horse through here on your own land and running into a guy with an AK-47 and 20 or 30 guys behind him dressed in camouflage and carrying drugs,” he said.
The U.S. War on Drugs has been an abject, costly failure. Despite a trillion dollars in spending to combat illegal drugs, drug user rates have remained the same and the price of most hard drugs has actually decreased since the Nixon Administration.
Immigration is only part of the story. Total immigration reform can only happen if decriminalization of drug use is part of the debate. The drug cartels have a vested interest — billions of dollars’ worth — in getting drugs into this country.
Something they have proven they will do so at any cost.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drug possession. There, people carrying certain amounts of drugs aren’t arrested; they aren’t prosecuted. Instead, users have to attend a drug class. The move has freed up resources to fight drug dealers. Overall, experts say decriminalization efforts have worked in that country.
Illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.
“Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”
Solving the complex issues of “border security” and “immigration reform” require simple, bold solutions. Combining more legal immigration with decriminalization might just be the immigration reform plan this country needs, while a guest worker program would match the need for workers. While decriminalization stops short of legalization, it might work to free up enough resources to bring a real fight to drug cartels that terrorize the southern border.
These two steps could alleviate stress at the border by reducing costs and increasing safety, decrease the backlog of immigration cases and help thousands at a chance for a better life.