"Where were you when it happened?"
Our trip had been planned since June. On September 10th, we attended a sustainability conference in Tucson. Then we drove to Sierra Vista to meet David Stoddard, a former border patrol agent and life long border resident who that night would guide us along the San Pedro River to Naco.
We drove in pitch darkness for hours. For long stretches at a time, not even a strand of barbed wire divided Mexico from the U.S. Anyone could walk into the country unobstructed. In the few places that we saw fencing, Stoddard said that an Arizona rancher trying to keep his livestock from straying had no doubt put it up.
At sporadic intervals, a lone border agent in a van drove by. What became clear was that the border had no meaningful defense. And what was equally obvious was that despite any argument to the contrary, more effective policing of the border—either with additional agents or the military— would be easy and effective.
Ironically, our hotel was full of safety and intelligence experts who were in training at Ft. Huachuca, a former U.S. Cavalry post and now the U.S. Army Intelligence Training Center. Yet, just a few miles from the base aliens, including drug dealers and terrorists, entered the U.S at will.
Since that fateful day, little if anything has changed in terms of secure borders. This week, I contacted Stoddard to get his evaluation of post- 9/11security.
"I fully expected our government to invoke border security,"
"Instead," he continued,
"Bush sent our National Guard troops to Ports of Entry to inspect vegetables. There was a great 'tightening' of security right at ports, which means that people who would normally present themselves for inspection were more thoroughly inspected. These are not people we are concerned about."
Stoddard noted that the wide-open spaces between the borders went unsecured.
"Previous to 9/11 there were places where terrorists, smugglers or anyone who wants to can drive a huge 18-wheeler across the border. Those places still exist today. The 'security' along our borders before and after 9/11 is best described as 'window dressing'"
As easy as it is to enter the U.S. from Mexico, coming in from Canada anywhere along the 4,000 mile northern border may even be easier. The generally accepted wisdom is that neither the Canadian or American governments are willing to tolerate the social and economic consequences of strict enforcement.
Bush talks of a more "transparent" border between Canada and the U.S. to keep the daily $1 billion trade flowing. At the same time, Bush envisions—or so he says—that this same "transparent" border will be "more secure."
When the standard vehicle inspection by U.S. Customs agents consists of asking for passenger names and inquiring if there is any fruit in the car, no one can be comfortable.
Finally, 95,000 miles of U.S. coastlines and territorial seas, American inland waterways, 361 ports and harbors and 3.4 million square miles of ocean that define our Exclusive Economic Zones must be safeguarded by the 35,000 U.S. Coast Guard personnel.
We remain too vulnerable by land and sea. And any hope that our exposure to terrorism can be diminished through legislation seems farfetched.
In his September 4th story titled "Remember 9/11:Immigration Reform," Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Mark Bixler interviewed University of Virginia Law Professor and former INS general counsel David Martin.
"If you're talking about a sophisticated terrorist operation, I really think it would be rare that tighter immigration controls would identify him."
Martin is equally skeptical about the usefulness of the student tracking system.
To expect that an immigration system that has been spinning out of control for three decades can be made sensible within a year is unrealistic.
But real immigration reform will never happen unless it is fully supported by the federal government. And, as of this moment, George W. Bush doesn't have the political courage to bring about change.
So while Bush is talking tough about security, the truth is that he is unwilling to take the heat that would come with the necessary drastic changes.