My Turn: There’s already a wall on the border, you just can’t see it

  • In this Nov. 16, 2018 file photo, concertina wire lines the top of a wall at the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 2/10/2019 12:30:52 AM

Having been raised on a farm in the fertile Central Valley of California, I know that farm workers are essential to harvesting the abundant crops that our entire country – and much of the world – relies upon.

If we want “grown in America” lettuce, citrus fruits, string beans, strawberries, avocados, broccoli and tomatoes, California farmers must hire foreigners willing to work 12-hour days, hunched over in 100-degree heat, picking produce from over-sprayed plants for an average hourly wage of $14.88.

It is no surprise that American citizens are not standing in line to apply for these jobs. In order to keep food from rotting in the fields, farmers have no choice but to hire undocumented immigrants for this time-sensitive work.

Approximately 78 percent of all farm workers cross a border to get here. Most of these workers would prefer to work here legally, and then return at the end of the harvest cycle to their homes and families south of the border. But our head-in-the sand immigration policies make it nearly impossible for willing farm workers to cross easily at staffed checkpoints in a timely manner. Ripening fruits and vegetables can’t wait for court hearings.

And the state of California cannot afford to jeopardize the $47.1 billion that agriculture contributes to the state’s economy. Do you wonder why any of this should matter to you in New England? Because each of us would experience a 3 to 4 percent increase in food prices if California’s fruits and vegetables were allowed to rot in the fields and supermarkets had to substitute them with foreign imports.

On the other end of the spectrum, the drug crisis in this country is out of control. Nearly every day in the Concord Monitor there’s an obituary of a young person who “died unexpectedly” with no explanation of the cause of death. But we know the cause. Because there is virtually no one in this state who hasn’t been touched by the curse of drug overdoses. And while some of these deaths are from overly prescribed legal drugs, many of them are the result of drugs smuggled illegally into this country.

During the 10 weeks of testimony in the trial of the drug kingpin known as El Chapo, it was revealed that his innovative smuggling network typically used sophisticated tunnels, or legal checkpoints with drugs hidden in passenger cars, concealed in trucks in cans of jalapeños, or stashed in tanker trains with ordinary loads of cooking oil or bananas.

Illegal immigrants are not crossing the border with bags of heroin and cocaine on their backs. The bulk of all drugs are flown in, driven in or burrowed in by sophisticated drug cartels who laugh at the concept that a $20 billion wall will slow them down. We might just as well extend the Rio Grande the entire 1,954-mile length of the Mexican border and stock it with alligators.

Virtual wall

It is absolutely correct that we need more border security, but we don’t need a modern equivalent of a medieval wall or moat. We already have a 21st-century virtual wall that extends the length of the southern border, which since 1978 has been highly effective in spotting both planes in the sky and humans on the ground.

For some inexplicable reason, however, no one in Washington or anywhere else is talking about it. I learned about this virtual wall several weeks ago when my son was finishing his through-hike of the Continental Divide Trail. Having set off from the Canadian border last August, he was just a few days away from the Mexican border 3,000 miles later when he awakened early one morning to a strange whirring sound. Considering there weren’t any towns within 20 miles of his campsite and startled by the noise, he unzipped his tent, looked around and saw a drone hovering above him. In the middle of nowhere, how and why was a drone spying on him?

It turns out that there are eight giant blimps that are part of the Tethered Aerostat Radar System, or TARS, that watch over the southern U.S. border at 10,000 feet, from Yuma, Arizona, to Lajas, Puerto Rico. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol website ( explains that “each balloon is moored to the ground with a special nylon fiber cable, and raised and lowered with a powered winch. Swaying silently in the breeze, U.S. Customs and Border Protection aerostats are unmanned, unarmed and spend their service lives hovering over a fixed location on the southern edge of the border.”

The TARS program originated as a U.S. Air Force program in 1978 and was taken over by CBP in 2013. These blimps have the capacity to detect aircraft or ground movement at a range of 200 miles. Planted 400 miles apart, these sophisticated “eyes in the sky” can see everything coming toward or moving away from the entire southern border. My son found out about them when he questioned a local man about the drone he saw, who responded: “You’ve been watched for the last 200 miles by both drones and Border Patrol agents, ever since they got the word from Deming. You probably stood out because we never see through-hikers in January.”

Deming, N.M., is one of the blimp bases. When the one-ton blimps spot humans with their radar, heat sensors, infrared night-vision cameras and other systems, the information is sent to a remote data collection site that forwards it the local authorities and Border Patrol agents. Those systems have face recognition technology. Within hours of initially spotting my son, they not only knew what he looked like, they also learned his name and address and probably what he had had for dinner.

The CBP website describes TARS as “the most cost-efficient capability that we own.” There are no pilots, just sci-fi-type technology sending a steady stream of data about everything that moves in the air and on the ground within 200 miles of Mexico.

Real solutions

We all can agree that we need border security, especially to stop the flow of drugs into our country. If TARS and drones can determine the identity of a lone hiker from Hopkinton out in the middle of the New Mexico desert, and track him for 200 miles, imagine what might be accomplished if our government focused an extra $5 billion that we don’t need for a physical wall on enhancing these proven detection methods.

With additional technology and human resources, we could ferret out smuggled drugs at airports and border crossings – in cars, trucks, trains and planes – and identify the despicable individuals from both sides of the border who contribute to their distribution.

But most of the people crossing the border are not drug smugglers or other types of “bad guys.” They are decent people, including children, who have escaped horrific conditions where rape, gang wars, violence and starvation are the norm. Yes, they want to come into our country to start a new life. But isn’t that what we’ve been encouraging oppressed people to do for 200 years?

The Statue of Liberty welcomes the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And virtually every migrant who arrives at our southern border is ready to work hard and give back. They have shown for generations that they are willing to do whatever it takes to eke out a living for their families, even toiling in the blazing California fields for 12 hours a day doing work that Americans won’t do.

Foreign labor is essential to our economy, not only in agriculture but also in health care. Frankly, we need them more than they need us.

So let’s use another $5 billion and create a system that welcomes workers into our country, and helps them find housing, training and employment. Let’s improve hiring and training for Border Patrol agents, and expand the immigration court system and the number of judges and allied personnel to streamline the entry process.

If we remove the walls of fear and divisiveness and look at border security more clearly, we will clearly see that there are multiple crises that could be solved with the same amount of money that one unneeded physical wall would cost.

We could stop the drug dealers and eliminate the flow of drugs into our country, educate our young people about the perils of drug abuse, and create more clinics to help those addicted. And at the same time, we could create a streamlined, humane immigration system that supports our economy and allows motivated, hard-working migrants to get a green card and walk through our border crossings with dignity and self-respect.

There’s a big difference between El Chapo-like drug lords and California farm workers. We must turn our attention to solving both issues, and if we use taxpayer dollars wisely, there will be more than enough money to do so.

(Pam McDonald, M.Div, is a hospice chaplain and the great-granddaughter of immigrants. She lives in Hopkinton.)

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