The notion that the first thing to do is “secure the border” between the United States and Mexico — and only then worry about comprehensive immigration reform — falls somewhere between hopeful fantasy and cynical cop-out. It’s a good sound bite but would be a ridiculous policy.

Fact-based analysis is increasingly out of fashion, however, and so the border-first hallucination has become popular among politicians and pundits reacting to Arizona’s new “breathing while Latino” law. The measure, which has sparked angry protests nationwide, orders police to act on “reasonable suspicion” in identifying, arresting and jailing undocumented immigrants.

Anyone who thinks such extremism could be quelled if the federal government would just “secure the border” really ought to visit Arizona and take a look. Or at least consult a map. Or even just read up on what is happening at the border — which, according to Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, “has never been more secure.”

Border crossings by undocumented immigrants have declined sharply over the past decade. With more Border Patrol agents on duty than ever before, apprehensions of would-be immigrants along the 2,000-mile border have dropped from a peak of 1.8 million in fiscal 2000 to 556,000 in fiscal 2009. Some of the decrease may be the result of tougher border enforcement, but the weakness of the U.S. economy also could be a factor.

There has been much sound and fury about Mexico’s rampant drug violence spilling over into the United States — much of it wrong, at least as far as Arizona is concerned. Sen. John McCain, who should know better, said recently that failure to secure the border “has led to violence — the worst I have ever seen.” Gov. Jan Brewer said she signed the state’s outrageous new law because of “border-related violence and crime due to illegal immigration.” But law enforcement officials in border communities say this simply is not true.

Roy Bermudez, assistant police chief of the border city of Nogales, told The Arizona Republic that “we have not, thank God, witnessed any spillover violence from Mexico.” The newspaper reported — citing figures from FBI crime reports and local police agencies — that crime rates along the border have been “essentially flat for the past decade.” Violent crime is down statewide, as it is nationally.

It should be pointed out there wouldn’t be any drug-related violence along either side of the border if Americans would curb their insatiable demand for illegal drugs. It also bears noting that the Mexican drug cartels procure their assault weapons on the U.S. side of the border, where just about anyone with a pulse can buy a gun.

Still, it’s hard to argue, in principle, against making every effort to lock down the border. The problems come in figuring out how to translate principle into practice.

In Nogales, the busiest Arizona crossing, there is already a big, impassable fence; the place is crawling with Border Patrol agents and other police. Most of those who cross illegally do so in remote areas, where they have to walk for many miles across scorched, unforgiving desert. Undocumented migrants already find ways to overcome daunting and potentially deadly obstacles, and it would take a lot more than rhetoric to make the border truly “secure.”

An attempt to design a high-tech “virtual” fence using sensors and cameras has not gone well. The equipment, thus far, has not been able to discern people from wildlife. And even if there were a system that could alert authorities whenever an illegal immigrant had stepped onto U.S. soil, how would authorities find him or her in the vast wilderness?

It would be possible to build a 2,000-mile-long Berlin Wall, complete with watchtowers. But it would be stupid and counterproductive. The U.S.-Mexico relationship is vitally important, economically and politically, and the border has to be permeable enough to permit a massive legitimate daily flow of goods and people.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, who is seeking approval to sue the state to overturn the new law, told me Monday that the only solution is comprehensive reform that provides a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already settled here, a legal way for temporary workers to come and go, and increased quotas for Mexicans who want to immigrate permanently.

The answer is not a bigger wall. And the answer surely is not Arizona’s shameful new law, which, Gordon said, “doesn’t do one thing but make our city less safe.”

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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