Our “border security industrial complex” stops a lot of good people dead in their tracks, but it also lets through some bad ones.

That was the case in July, 2017, when an undocumented Mexican man, who had been deported at least 13 times before, sexually assaulted two women days after being released from a county jail in Portland, Oregon.

The man’s crimes have become a flash point in the debate over sanctuary, which Oregon, Portland, and the surrounding county support. In general, sanctuary means local law enforcers avoid questions about citizenship status, and do not hold undocumented immigrants for detention by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) without a warrant.

The migrant, who was in his 30s, was set free after copping a plea on charges of interfering with police and giving a false birth date. A few days later, he sexually assaulted a 64- year-old woman in her apartment, stole her car, and later attacked another woman in a parking garage.

While the feds and local sheriff blame each other, the situation reveals the widening split between local, regional, state and national authorities over the contentious issue of how to respond to the presence of millions of undocumented immigrants in our midst.

ICE and its supporters say this is what happens when local authorities don’t obey their requests to hold everyone for deportation. The local authorities and their supporters say enforcing immigration law is a federal responsibility and enforcing criminal law is their responsibility, and this is what happens when ICE fails to do its job.

The fact this guy was deported more than a dozen times does make you wonder: How was he not flagged as dangerous? It shows the incredible futility and inefficiency of the current system.

Making all undocumented people into criminals allows real criminals to take advantage of us all. A system that makes little attempt to distinguish between good, honest people and criminals and terrorists is not only wasteful and bound to fail, it is immoral.

Border as Scapegoat

One of the reasons the border is such a conundrum is that problems occurring there – primarily migrant and drug smuggling – cannot be solved there. The border suffers for our national hypocrisy over cheap labor and drugs.

We say we do not want illegal workers, but we enjoy the fruits of their low-cost labor and balk at the police-state tactics that would be required to root them out. We say we are caring and moral, yet we allow a system to continue that’s led to the deaths of thousands of innocent people (and failed to stop criminals like the one in Portland). We say were are libertarian and pro-individual rights, but we have outlawed drugs and created an underground economy that’s fueled mass incarceration here and staggering violence in Mexico, with little effect on drug use.

About the only thing everyone seems to agree on is more enforcement at the border. So more it is, even though we’ve already spent billions on walls, fences, cameras, drones, and other highly sophisticated means of detection and protection, the number of people caught is at record lows, Mexican migration is at a net negative, and American businesses are hurting because they can’t find enough workers.

There are already so many Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector (about 3,800), that the number of apprehensions in July (2,177) averaged out to a little more than one for every two agents. That’s almost twice as many agents as arrests. Another analysis put the cost of each apprehension at $10,000, a number sure to rise as we spend billions more, causing more irreversible environmental destruction, suffering and death.

Whatever we want to call this, it’s not an “open border.”

Rather than continuing to use the border as a costly scapegoat – as if border enforcement could stop Americans from taking drugs or employing cheap labor — these issues must be faced head on.

Border residents lead the way

The border is frequently described as a war zone, yet it’s actually a place where people live in proximity, peace and friendship on both sides.

It’s a beehive of modern commerce – the busiest border in the world with semis lined up around the clock and 350 million legal crossings annually – yet still largely unpopulated. Cowboys ride the range, rare birds migrate along flowing streams, and spotted leopards roam wild across sky islands, mountain ranges that straddle the line and overlook hundreds of square miles of open, empty territory.

People here are working together to make the border a model of peaceful, friendly relations between nations with deep geographical, familial and cultural ties. They are working to demilitarize and revitalize the region by focusing on ecology, environment, and sustainable agriculture. They are putting forth a vision of international relations that transcends traditional liberal/conservative divisions and expands our notions of humanity to include people of other nationalities.

One of those border people is Beto O’Rourke, who, in a sign of the times, beat an incumbent former Border Patrolman to become the U.S. Congressman from El Paso in 2012. The 44-year-old Democrat is now challenging Ted Cruz for Senate. His platform calls for an end to both the war on drugs and the persecution of undocumented immigrants.

O’Rourke knows the border’s 20th century history — from no prohibition to prohibition to no prohibition to prohibition again — shows the way forward. Rather than being a place where people must engage in deadly conflict over provision of commodities like drugs and labor, with proper legalization, regulation and taxation (as was done with alcohol in 1933) violence could be greatly reduced.

During a recent visit with Hispanic business leaders in Tucson, former Mexican President Vicente Fox said his country was ready to supply America with legal marijuana.

A more comprehensive solution would include legalization, regulation and taxation of all drugs, with proceeds going to housing, treatment, and jobs for addicts; and a halt of U.S. weapons supplied to the Mexican military and police, which too frequently end up in the hands of cartels.

As for immigration, we must work to regularize the flow of migrant labor through a system that would allow people to pass legally back and forth. Then we could check everyone, differentiate the good from the bad, and protect the rights of workers on both sides.

We must also work to reduce violence, strengthen the rule of law, and enforce worker rights in Mexico and other sending countries. If we spent even a fraction of the resources we spend on keeping out migrants on economic, social and political development in their home countries, the problem would be solved. For what we spend, we could probably employ every one of them in revitalizing their own nations.

As Tucson artist Bill Lesch wrote in a recent issue of edible Baja Arizona, “To think we can consume riches while our neighbors starve just over the wall is insanity, and will lead us all to ashes.”

–September 11, 2017