This was the year the country was supposed to confront its immigration problems head-on and finally take bold steps to secure the borders and do something about the 12 million people who are living here illegally.
But election politics scuttled hopes for reform in Congress, and President Bush's declining popularity and troubles in Iraq ensured that no leadership would come from the White House. Mr. Bush's support for a guest worker program all but disappeared as his poll numbers fell. In the absence of real solutions, the country was left with symbolic fixes. And the symbols weren't pretty.
The president sent some National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. Federal immigration agents conducted sweeps of job sites with illegal workers and deported hundreds of them. And, of course, there was the fence. Before breaking for election campaigning, Congress approved building 700 miles of fence along the Mexican border.
Fences generally go beyond symbolism and have practical functions. But what Congress signed off on is really a symbolic wall intended to allay the nation's frustration with its dysfunctional policy, at least for the time being.
It's hard to take a 700-mile fence seriously when it's supposed to cover 2,000 miles. It's even harder when Congress sets aside only enough money, $1.2 billion, to build about half of it - maybe 370 miles.
But that might even be a stretch. The fence bill gives the Department of Homeland Security wide discretion in deciding how the $1.2 billion should be spent. If he chooses, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who is known to favor the high-tech approach, can use the money to create a "virtual fence" with high-tech sensors and surveillance devices. In fact, he can spend the money on most anything associated with border control - roads, signs, buildings, etc.
Who will get the non-virtual fence remains an open question. Governors, congressmen and even mayors from the border states have been bickering for weeks over what they consider their fair share of the barrier. To get the bill through the Senate, Republican leaders put in language that requires Homeland Security to negotiate with affected parties to determine where sections of fence will go. Even Indian tribes must be consulted.
So, the much-publicized 700-mile fence to protect the 2,000-mile border appears likely to become a few hundred miles of cameras, lights and heat sensors punctuated by the occasional segment of metal and wire - a structure that, from a distance, looks like a hockey player's smile.
Members of Congress, Republicans in particular, are on the campaign trail telling constituents about a 700-mile fence that will make the nation more secure and stem the flow of illegal immigrants. It will stand, in places yet to be determined, as a symbol of the government's resolve to control its borders.
As virtual achievements go, it ranks among the greatest in United States history.
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