Get Off the Fence

Watching our top statewide elected officials grapple with the prospect of building a fence along the border brings to mind the Argentinian dictum, “They are all bald men in search of a comb.”

They know a fence is pointless. But since short-term political expediency seems to demand one, our governor and two U.S. senators are desperately trying to obscure their barren leadership with comb-overs.

We were heartened to hear Gov. Rick Perry call the plan to build a 1,200-mile wall “idiocy” during a recent trade trip to Mexico.

“It absolutely would not work,” Perry said, while chastising Congress. “I don’t think this (immigration) is that difficult of an issue if Congress would have the maturity to sit down and really discuss it and cut out all the mean rhetoric.”

If only Perry had delivered his remarks in the right country. Every other border governor has had the guts to blast the fence at home. Some have even-shock!-publicly lobbied Washington. Not Ricky. Perry chose to make his stand during a trip to drum up business from the state’s top trading partner. Mexico takes $158 billion in Texas exports a year, and rejection of the wall is a point of national pride there.

The governor is trying to appease at least two anti-immigrant constituencies. Rumor has it that Perry is angling to become the next head of the Republican Governors Association. Then there is the increasingly xenophobic GOP base. To establish his border security bona fides, Perry is trumpeting his own menu of idiotic and ill-conceived solutions. Our personal favorite is the border Web cameras, whereby citizens watch the border on the Internet and call in suspicious activity. Texas taxpayers have spent $200,000 on this boondoggle with 10 arrests to show for it. Perry also wants to militarize the border, an idea so bad we dedicated an entire feature to exploring its consequences (see, “Soldiers on the Border,” September 8, 2006).

Our two senators, who actually have a say on immigration reform and the border fence, have exhibited similar fancy footwork. Both are aware of the demographic changes under way in Texas. Antagonizing Hispanics now could prove costly later, but in the short term Anglo Republicans are the ones who vote. Not surprisingly, the positions of Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn seem colored by the proximity of their next election.

If Hutchison runs again, either for her current position or for governor, it won’t be until at least 2010. When her November 2006 election approached, she voted for the fence that September. Last June, during the immigration debate at the beginning of her new term, she voted against the fence. In the most recent fence vote in July, she added a weak provision that requires the Department of Homeland Security to consult with local cities and governments before construction, which does nothing to forestall building a wall on federal land. (See this issue’s “Habitat for Inanity,” to learn just how devastating that will be.) Ironically, Hutchison once fought to conserve the federal land.

The Dallas Morning News put together a nifty list of Cornyn’s quotes on the fence starting in 2004. After his election, Cornyn was adamantly opposed. “We cannot and should not build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border,” he said in September 2004. Cornyn is now campaigning for re-election. In recent months, he voted twice in favor of the fence and in February of this year advocated “fencing and barriers where appropriate.”

All three of these politicians know that comprehensive immigration reform is the only realistic way to slow illegal border crossings. Pursuing this, of course, would require them to look beyond their own narrow self-interest.

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Published at 12:00 am CST