Compromise on border wall, our last line of defense

As if failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform has not caused enough damage to our nation, now we are in the midst of a partial government shutdown as President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE and his congressional backers are locked in a nasty stalemate with Democrats over whether to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.  

Democrats and Republicans disagree about the wall but both sides have argued for years in favor of secure borders and immigration reform. In 1995, President Clinton emphasized in his State of the Union address how Americans were concerned about the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country, which led his administration to hire a record number of border guards and crack down on illegal hiring by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens.

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Many Democrats including then-Sen. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWill the Horowitz report split the baby? Gabbard commemorates John Lennon's passing by singing 'Imagine' Bannon: Clinton waiting to enter 2020 race and 'save the Democratic Party from Michael Bloomberg' MORE (D-N.Y.) voted in favor of the 2007 McCain- Kennedy immigration reform bill, which would have established increased border patrols, border barriers, fencing, radar and aerial vehicles. Clinton, as well as then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump keeps Obama immigration program, and Democrats blast him The House Judiciary Committee's fundamental choice Teaching black children to read is an act of social justice MORE (D-Ill.) and Sen. Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law | Michigan governor seeks to pause Medicaid work requirements | New front in fight over Medicaid block grants House, Senate Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law Why a second Trump term and a Democratic Congress could be a nightmare scenario for the GOP MORE (D-N.Y.) also voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which President Bush signed into law, authorizing about 700 miles of fencing along some of the U.S.-Mexico border. The act authorized vehicle barriers, checkpoints and use of advanced technology to stem illegal immigration.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham expects Horowitz investigation to show evidence was manipulated, withheld Trump's exceptionalism: No president has so disrespected our exceptional institutions Trump, GOP shift focus from alleged surveillance abuse to Durham Russia probe MORE (R-S.C.) made it clear he would continue to support President Trump’s demand for border wall money. He recently tweeted to Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing White House, Democrats strike tentative deal to create Space Force in exchange for federal parental leave benefits: report Trump: Fox News 'panders' to Democrats by having on liberal guests MORE (D-Calif): “No Wall Money, No Deal.”

The last major immigration reform, in 1986, made it illegal to hire illegal immigrants. Roughly 3 million immigrants received citizenship. Lacking effective border control measures, the amnesty arguably encouraged more illegal immigration.   

Physical barriers can be of great assistance to law enforcement but are they a panacea? No. When we close one avenue for illegal infiltration, our enemies will search for others.  Infamous Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo reportedly used tunnels to smuggle drugs into the United States.

Our border crisis is multifaceted. We need to consider four elements of comprehensive immigration reform.  

First, strategically-placed barriers at the border can be an effective last line of defense but we also must attack threats to our national security at their points of origin well before they reach us. Collaborating with our regional partners where the illegal immigration originates is critical. The United States and Mexico have a long history of effective police, intelligence and military partnership.  

Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), recently emphasized investment in Central America is an effective means to improve economic opportunities and thereby decrease the push towards immigration to the United States. McAleenan suggested El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala should work to become “an accountable partner” to the United States.

Second, an estimated 40 percent of illegal immigrants overstay their visas. We need a national E-verify system to prevent illegal aliens from being allowed to work, as well as a visa tracking system.  

Third, we need to recognize the extraordinary contribution from our border patrol agents and consider technical enhancements and increased personnel to augment their effectiveness. Border patrol agents are a critical line of defense against criminals and terrorists. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, most illegal drugs enter the U.S. via the Southwest border via legal ports of entry. They are often hidden in passenger cars and tractor-trailers.  

We should also recall Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian citizen who planned to attack Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve 2000. Alert U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents arrested him at Port Angeles, Washington, a U.S. port of entry. Ressam was carrying a massive cache of explosives.

Finally, we should recognize physical border protection is a last line of defense. We should build where it is practical and a force multiplier for border security. Terrain, respect for indigenous populations, and avoiding damage to the environment are all factors worthy of consideration. We must take great care to integrate all of our measures — physical barriers, technology and border patrol agents.

Democrats and Republicans should reach a compromise on a fraction of President Trump’s $5 billion dollar demand, which could be used to build physical barriers necessary to augment border security. Is this too large a price to pay in return for comprehensive immigration reform, including dealing with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and other undocumented illegal immigrants, as well as hardening our defenses against transnational criminals and terrorists who seek to exploit porous borders?  

Our elected representatives are supposed to solve our nation’s problems, not subordinate them to partisan politics and make them worse. We should expect compromise and solutions that serve our national interests, instead of partisan bickering and legislative failure.

Our country’s unique and rich melting pot is our competitive advantage. Socially and ethnically diverse groups enhance creativity, innovation and performance. What an irony that we have reached legislative deadlock over immigration. Here’s hoping our elected leaders can step back from the brink and agree on a compromise solution. Our nation of immigrants deserves it.   

Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.