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James Jay Carafano: The administration's secure-the-border trap

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When the public clamors for action to curb illegal immigration, politicians push the "easy button." They mobilize the National Guard and send them to the border.

It's a time-honored tradition, though not always efficacious.

For example, in 1916, Poncho Villa launched a series of cross-border raids into the U.S. In response, we sent a few thousand troops under the command of Blackjack Pershing to hunt down the bandits.

It cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a day. Pershing never captured Villa. And, on several occasions, the Army got its butt kicked. On June 21, 1916, the Mexican Army almost completely wiped out a detachment of the 10th U.S. Cavalry at Carrizal.

Most U.S. troops were withdrawn by 1917. They returned to the border in the 1920s. Ultimately, border violence subsided, not so much due to the U.S. troop presence, but because the revolutionary ardor wracking Mexico had finally run its course.

Recently, President Obama ordered the National Guard back to the border. And Congress rushed to pass another border bill before sprinting off for summer recess. This frenzy of activity reflects a desire to be seen as "doing something" more than a calculated, serious response to our border security problems.

For several years, Republicans have chanted a "secure the border first" mantra. It allowed them to look tough on the illegal immigration issue while dodging the issue of "comprehensive" reform. It's a bad strategy. It suggests that, if the Obama administration overcomes the "border first" problem, it will be clear sailing for a push for amnesty.

The administration knows an opportunity when it sees one. Hence we saw Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano trot out the "border has never been more secure" argument in congressional testimony earlier this year. However, as violence on the Mexican side of the border continues to escalate, the administration's "secure border" argument isn't gaining traction -- even among congressional Democrats.

So now the White House is on a different tack: Throwing money at the problem. Far too many Republicans as well as Democrats are comfortable with that approach -- even when it promises to accomplish little. But, in the end, unfocused spending on the border may give the administration an excuse to push through a massive amnesty.

At some point, after shoveling huge sums of money into low-value border security gambits, pro-amnesty politicians will throw up their hands. "We tried," they'll say, "but we just can't secure the border without amnesty."

Whether progress is made on the border or not, the real problem is that any strategy for reducing illegal immigration that includes amnesty is bound to fail. Granting a general amnesty will just encourage another wave of illegal border crossing. That is exactly what happened when the 1986 amnesty bill was passed. And that is exactly what will happen if Washington does it again.

But waiting until we get the border right before doing anything else to reform immigration policy makes no sense either.

Securing the border requires solving larger problems. It means working with Mexico to bust the cartels, enforcing our immigration and workplace laws, creating effective temporary-worker programs, and rejecting amnesty once and for all. And, of course, it requires better and more cost-effective border security.

Washington can't solve the problem of illegal immigration without tackling all aspects of the problem. Simply pounding the table and chanting "border first" is not just inadequate; it puts us on the short road to a general amnesty.

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

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James Jay Carafano

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The Washington Examiner