Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was in Texas last week to provide answers about the Secure Border Initiative. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Chertoff said construction on 153 miles of border fencing in the Lone Star State would begin by fall.
Chertoff, however, was addressing the wrong question. Few people doubt the government can start a project that might enhance border security. The real uncertainty is about if it will ever finish the job.
Whether you believe fencing of the traditional or virtual type is a reasonable or effective part of the solution to our homeland security problem is not the issue. The issue is the credibility of the White House, Congress and the leadership of both parties to deliver on policy pledges.
The Secure Fence Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush on Oct. 26, requires the government to achieve and maintain operational control over the entire international land and maritime borders of the United States within 18 months. Lawmakers allocated $1.2 billion to the project.
We're nine months in. Does anyone believe we're halfway to the goal of controlling our borders?
The first milestone in the act was a May 30 deadline for the creation of an interlocking surveillance camera system along the border in California and Arizona. Status: incomplete.
Actually, worse than incomplete. Government Executive reports the entire surveillance system of cameras, radar and communications equipment that makes up the virtual fence is vulnerable to cyber-attack. Drug runners, human smugglers or terrorists can use standard Wi-Fi equipment and a laptop computer to take down the technological barrier.
If politicians want to know why there is so much cynicism about government, why polls are showing the approval ratings of the legislative and executive branches at or near historic lows, they need look no further than the issues of immigration and national security.
Last year, President Bush deployed 6,000 National Guard personnel to assist federal authorities with security on the U.S.-Mexico border. According to data released this month by the Customs and Border Protection Agency, apprehensions during the period from Oct. 1 through June 30 were down 24 percent compared to the same period a year ago 682,468 versus 894,496.
Given evidence of a border security initiative that's actually in place and working, what did the president do? He announced that the National Guard deployment would be cut in half by Sept. 1.
Since the last supposed immigration reform in 1986, successive Congresses and administrations headed by both Republicans and Democrats have failed to deliver on enforcement provisions. One party acquiesces to a porous border in order to cater to the interests of businesses that want a constant flow of cheap labor. The other party does so to appease the demands of identity politics.
But a porous border and lax immigration enforcement are no longer an economic or domestic political issue. Since Sept. 11, 2001, they have become a national security issue.
In the groundbreaking series "Breaching America" published in May, my Express-News colleague Todd Bensman followed human smuggling routes from the Middle East into Central America and Mexico and across the border into the United States. Last week, ABC News obtained an FBI intelligence report about a human smuggling ring that "used to smuggle Mexicans, but decided to smuggle Iraqi or other Middle Eastern individuals because it was more lucrative."
Is anyone in a position of leadership paying attention?
The American people have magnanimous attitudes about legal immigration. They also have memories of broken promises, unenforced immigration laws and a bureaucracy that was asleep at the switch as a horrendous terrorist plot unfolded.
The public outcry over the failed immigration bill carries a simple message. No more promises. No more pledges to start what already should have been done. Just let us know when you finish the job.