Fencing off the entire U.S.-Mexico border was one of the "dumbest" ideas former Customs and Border Protection Commissioner W. Ralph Basham was presented with during his tenure, he said Friday. The comments, given at an event on border security since 9/11 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, fly in the face of claims by 2012 GOP candidates Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, who have both emphasized their support for a border fence, and lend credence to candidates Rick Perry and Ron Paul, who both oppose it.
"You can't just pick up the phone and call Long Fence," Basham joked, pointing out a 10-foot fence would inspire would-be border crossers to get an 11-foot ladder. When he became commissioner in 2006 under President Bush, the fence idea was all the rage, and he said congressional mandates from lawmakers who didn't understand the challenges had CBP "chasing our tail" trying to keep up. "We all knew that [the fence] wasn't the answer. That wasn't the solution."
On a tour of the Southwest border, Basham says, then House Speaker Dennis Hastert continually insisted the fence was the only way to seal it. The tour passed a penitentiary surrounded by a chain-link fence with barbed wire. "He said, 'That's what we need right there,'" Basham remembers of Hastert. "And I said, 'With all due respect, no.'"
After three days of briefings and a tour of the harsh border terrain, though, Hastert changed his tune. At a press conference in Nogales, Ariz., the speaker stood up and endorsed Basham's three-pronged approach: some infrastructure (like a fence), better technology, and the right level of staffing.
Current CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin, who was also at Friday's event, chimed in, diplomatically assuring the crowd he didn't blame Congress, but adding, "I'm still waiting for that call from Long Fence."
The commissioners expressed frustration that some members of Congress and others continue to say the border region is insecure and crime-riddled. The fight against organized crime in Mexico is seeing little seepage over the border, they said, and Bersin pointed out that the border is the safest it has been in 30 years. Though border patrol agents do put their lives at risk in their line of work, crime rates in El Paso and San Diego are far lower than those of Detroit or Philadelphia. "Part of the aftermath of 9/11," Bersin said, is that "the vulnerability we felt that day in regards to our borders is taken advantage of by those who would exploit fear."
To those people, Bersin says he offers two bits of wisdom: To paraphrase Mark Twain, "First, let's get our facts straight. Then you can distort them as much as you like"; and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "The only thing the American people have to fear is fear itself."