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Simcox retakes the floor as he senses things may be edging a bit too far toward the incredible. “Time for solutions,” he says, changing the subject. “At this point what we need is military augmentation on that border. Not mines or tanks. But we need to lay down the law. As Americans, we will say you willfollow the law.”
And as an American, Simcox adds when asked, he is notwilling to pay higher taxes to pay for the militarization of the border.
The earliest word that came to me from the Clinton administration was you have to do something about the border,” remembers Doris Meissner as she speaks at a dinner gathering in Tucson. Meissner served as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for the entirety of Clinton’s two terms. The current border strategy was implemented under her watch and authority.
“I will always remember the first meeting with [Attorney General] Janet Reno,” Meissner continues. “She said, ‘You will do the border first.’”
Meissner is a clearly intelligent and thoughtful person, and hardly a newcomer to border issues. Back in the ’80s, she had some involvement in providing humanitarian assistance to Salvadorans seeking refuge in Texas.
Now working in a Beltway immigration think tank, she faces the thorny task of explaining or at least justifying how, as a functionary in what was supposed to be a relatively enlightened administration, she wound up imposing a border policy that even she agrees has too many unintended consequences.
She takes pains to establish the context of the early ’90s, when the policy was hatched. Large states, including California, began suing the federal government for reimbursement of moneys spent on illegal aliens. California Governor Pete Wilson was whipping up nativist zeal with his Proposition 187. A lone-ranger Border Patrol commander in El Paso was — on his own — blockading the border at Juárez and winning huge media and popular acclaim for his hard line.
“All this was happening as Clinton was coming into office,” Meissner stresses. “Senator Dianne Feinstein had also just taken Janet Reno for a trip to the Tijuana border. And Feinstein was very insistent, as only she can be, that this was unacceptable, that this mayhem had to stop.”
President Clinton himself was also ultrasensitive to the immigration issue, Meissner says. He blamed the uproar after locally held Cuban immigrants rioted and escaped from a detention center for contributing to his loss in his first re-election race as Arkansas governor.
And so the decision was made immediately after Clinton’s inauguration to redo border policy. This is what is most striking about Meissner’s account: how closely her description of the policy matches that of its most virulent critics.
“We were going to move from a focus on apprehension to one of prevention and creating deterrence,” she says. “Around the four urban ports of Tijuana, Nogales, El Paso and Brownsville is where illegal crossers were being apprehended. The first part of the strategy was to blockade those four corridors. The strategy was able to redirect traffic and stop the flow over those four areas.”
“The rest of the geography across the border would be the deterrent,” Meissner eerily affirms. “The geography was so inhospitable.” ‰
After that assertion is where Meissner’s account begins to depart from those of her critics. Following two years of the new policy, “especially after border deaths emerged,” she says, “we incorporated a border safety program . . . mapping and shifting the Border Patrol to areas where the deaths were occurring.” But the notion is not supported by the statistics. The spike in crossing deaths started to appear not two, but three and four years after the policy was initiated, and has been rising ever since. Whatever “border safety” program there might be has clearly failed.
Meissner says she has “no regrets” over her tenure, but also adds that when it comes to the death toll, “Clearly, not enough has been done in that respect, as that is the ongoing horror story at the border.”
And joining with her critics’ chorus, and now safely distant from the responsibilities of power, Meissner says that in evaluating U.S. border strategy, “The huge paradox now is that the unintended consequences far overshadow the positive.”
After giving another generous two hours of her time to the gathered reporters, Meissner ventures deeper into critiquing the policy she’s responsible for implementing. The whole strategy has been “overcome” by “powerful world forces,” including globalization and a decade’s worth of the North American Free Trade Agreement (again, a policy victory of her own Clinton administration). She agrees that a completely revamped and bilateral border policy begs to be fashioned — one that once and for all recognizes the reality that “25 percent of Mexico’s labor force already lives here,” and that “these migrants are part of our work force and need to be given status.”
And yet, after all that, Meissner cannot quite bring herself to confirm the hard or even approximate number of border deaths racked up over her tenure — even though Mexican authorities, as well as church and human-rights groups, keep a generally reliable and updated account. “There always have been deaths at the border,” she says. “It’s just that no one kept track of it,” she answers when pressed on the issue. “We have no way of knowing if there are more or less deaths. Either way, there should be none.”