Thursday, Oct. 12, 2006 | Twenty-five percent of Americans approved of the job Congress is doing in the latest CBS-New York Times poll, and what could those people possibly have been thinking? Reps. Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney and Mark Foley have all been forced from office in recent months, and they’re just the ones who were caught. Republican leadership is collapsing. Beyond that, no Congress in history has ever spent more to achieve less. What is there to approve?

The last piece of congressional action before election adjournment a few days ago was the Senate vote to approve 370 miles of double fence along the Mexican border. The House already has approved 700 miles – about a third of the way from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s just the start, we’re told.

Both these bills were approved by veto-proof majorities in the unlikely event George Bush ever does the right thing. What only a few years ago was viewed as a hare-brained idea backed by only a handful of extremists like San Diego’s Duncan Hunter, is going mainstream. While most of the world works to bring down barriers and better integrate economies and societies, two nations stand out alone as wall-builders – the United States and Israel.

This kind of extremism trickles down. Last week’s vote by the Escondido City Council prohibiting landlords from renting to illegal immigrants – legislation worthy of Soviet commissars – is an obvious violation of due process. Landlords are told to whom they may not rent; residents are invited to inform on neighbors who might lack papers. Landlords will be leery of renting to people with accents or dark skins for fear of denunciation. Nice place, Escondido.

How has the United States survived over 200 years without fences (not to mention the Middle East which has survived since the dawn of civilization) only to start walling off neighbors in the 21st Century? What has gone so terribly wrong that we must fall back on the failed East German solution – walling people off from each other?

The sophistry is that our wall is different from the Berlin wall because it keeps people out, not in. But walling neighbors out or ourselves in is alike in this sense: it is recognition of failure, recognition that we have failed to do what every generation before us has done, reconcile differences enough to live with neighbors without barriers. Besides, as other nations know, there are better ways to control migration than fences.

An idea formerly dismissed as absurd succeeds today because the magic word is invoked – the word George Bush and his majority have used for five years to scare and manipulate public opinion. The word perpetuates a failed war in Iraq, diverts practically the entire defense budget to that war and assures that almost any bad idea will be funded (and paid for by debt) as long as it has some tangential tie to it.

The word is terrorism. Just as we were told Iraqis were terrorists (which they weren’t until we made war on them), we’re told a border fence will be a bulwark against terrorists sneaking across from Mexico. The hysteria has reached a point that web sites have sprung up urging citizens to build their own fence. A site called Border Fence Project enables you to “adopt a fence” or, if you are of modest income, “adopt a post” with your contribution. Its rival in fence fund-raising is

According to these groups – in cooperation with “Minuteman-like groups already on the border” – a private fence can be built at a fraction of the $9 billion they say Washington will spend. They claim there are as many as 30 million illegal aliens already in the United States. Illegal immigration, they say, “rewards us with a 9/11 or worse every year,” and “illegal aliens murder 5,000 innocent Americans every year.” Except for the $9 billion, which is real, those statements and figures are preposterous.

In the 230th year of our Republic, a consortium of public and private funds is at work to wall us off from Mexico. As isolated as our nation already is under Bush, it’s hard to imagine a greater symbol of world estrangement than a border fence. This Congress is joining public policy to the most extreme elements of society – isolationists, racists and armed private militias patrolling the border.

It doesn’t matter that border state governors – notably in California, Arizona and New Mexico – oppose border fences. It doesn’t matter that no evidence exists that even a single terrorist has sneaked over the border from Mexico. It doesn’t matter that there are real ways to end illegal immigration. Nothing matters to this Congress – especially with elections approaching – except creating the illusion of doing something, deceiving people into believing that throwing money at a problem – $2 billion is the official estimate of those 370 miles, or $8-9 billion to reach from the Pacific to the Gulf.

“You show me a 50-foot wall, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder,” says Arizona governor Janet Napolitano.

“If I say – let’s build a wall – what is to prevent you from building a tunnel,” says California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. “How may tunnels have been built in these last 10 years? We’re going back to the stone ages here.”

The difference between those of us who are serious about stopping illegal immigration and members of Congress making sound bites on terrorism, is that we know what will work. We know that illegal immigrants come here for work, and to deny them work – through a Social Security ID program – is to stop them from coming. Every serious study on immigration for a generation has reached that same conclusion. Every other nation serious about illegal immigration has taken that step.

If we replaced every incumbent with a challenger in next month’s election, we couldn’t do worse than we’ve done with this Congress.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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