Before we can talk about comprehensive immigration reform, we have to secure our borders.

This is a mantra that has been repeated time and time again by U.S. politicians —many of them former presidential candidates— who have provided neither a solid description of what a secure border actually looks like, nor an illuminated path toward a system that provides some sort of legal status for the millions of undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S.

The virtual border fence was a billion-dollar boondoggle that ended after five years and 53 miles of an electronic barrier that doesn’t work.

- Sylvia Longmire

While many people disagree with that statement, many also feel there is no direct correlation between the two, and that immigration reform needs to happen regardless of the security situation along our southwest border with Mexico. 

In fact, there is absolutely a direct relationship between the two issues, but for years elected officials with a pulpit to speak from on these matters have gotten it backward. Immigration reform needs to happen now to make it easier to secure our borders.

In general, there are three categories of people who are crossing or could potentially cross illegally from Mexico into the U.S.: terrorists or individuals associated with terrorist groups, drug traffickers and other violent criminals, and immigrants from various countries looking for work and better lives for their families. Securing our borders means stopping threats to our national security before they manage to infiltrate our country, and only two of these three groups pose an actual threat.

Fortunately, not one operational terrorist —meaning someone with a specific plan to blow something up on U.S. soil— has ever entered the U.S. from Mexico, legally or otherwise. But every year, drug traffickers move hundreds of tons of illegal drugs into over 1,200 U.S. cities, raking in billions of dollars in profits as they go. They routinely kill and seriously injure each other and undocumented immigrants, and pose an increasingly dangerous threat to U.S. law enforcement officials.

The third category of border crossers —undocumented migrants from Mexico, Central and South America, and dozens of other countries sprinkled in— vastly outnumber the people in the first two groups. These border crossers do not pose a threat to our national security, and current immigration and border enforcement policies direct a disproportionate amount of resources toward detecting and apprehending non-criminal undocumented immigrants when those resources would be better utilized trying to keep members of Los Zetas or the Gulf cartel out of south Texas.

One example of this resource misdirection is the border fence. Based on current border security policies, the fence is effective along some parts of the border to act as a deterrent to violent drug smugglers and migrants. However, drug smugglers working for Mexican cartels have easily found ways around, under, over, and through it, and migrants move to areas —often much more unforgiving— where the fence ends. Yet, many politicians want to build more fence at the cost of millions of taxpayer dollars per mile just to say we have it, and not necessarily because it will be more effective. The virtual border fence was a billion-dollar boondoggle that ended after five years and 53 miles of an electronic barrier that doesn’t work.

What our elected officials don’t seem to understand is that immigration reform has the potential to do much more than just provide legal status to undocumented immigrants and legitimize a much-needed workforce of millions. 

It can completely reshape our approach to border security by allowing our border agencies to focus less on job and better-life seekers and more on fund-raisers for terrorist groups, special interest aliens and violent drug smugglers. 

With a clearly defined —and legal— process for seeking entry into the U.S. via a temporary worker permit, or a new class of visa or some other method, more and more immigrants won’t need to submit themselves to shady human smugglers and the hardships of the Sonora desert to come here.

Even if immigration reform is wildly successful, universally accepted and implemented quickly, that doesn’t mean illegal immigration will end completely. However, it opens an enormous door to revised policies that can shift our border security focus to the real threats to our national security. Thus, by quickly enacting comprehensive immigration reform, only then can we truly start on the path to effectively securing our borders.

Sylvia Longmire is a former senior border security analyst for the State of California. She is currently a consultant, columnist for Homeland Security Today magazine, and author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars (available in Spanish as El Cartel).

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