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Barack Obama went into the Whitehouse with a very short agenda: health care reform, end the war in Iraq, and rebuild foreign relationships wrecked by the Bush administration. Once in office he discovered the economy was in much worse shape than we knew.

As with all U.S. presidents he was quickly inundated with issues he had only paid lip-service to during the elections. One of those issues that has become a front burner problem is illegal immigration. And on the top of that pot is the issue of “securing the borders”.

Border security is one of those issues the two parties flip on depending who is in power at the time. If you’re in power the problem is under control – Bush started building a fence. If you’re out of power the problem is getting worse – terrorists can cross the border now any time they want. Actually terrorists don’t need to take the southern route through the badlands that immigrants from Central and South America must use. That’s the poor people’s way of doing it. Terrorists can just catch a flight into JFK.

And the fence is a joke: our fragile version of the Berlin Wall. But remember the Berlin Wall was there to keep people in. Supposedly the border fence will keep people out. If it were a real defensive line with armed guards, dogs, checkpoints, and sophisticated monitoring equipment, and orders to shoot to kill it might actually keep some immigrants out. But then all they have to do is an end-run around the thing and come in on the coast. Try building a fence there.

Obama is a counter-puncher and is always reacting. His reaction to claims he is weak is to talk about “kicking ass” and fire generals who tell the truth. His reaction to claims he is ignoring border security is to spend $600 million on band-aids and publicity items like drone planes. This buys a lot of good will with the personnel who will get the new toys. It does nothing to secure the borders.

As long as Mexico does nothing to stem the tide of illegal immigrants, and in fact encourages it for economic reasons, the border cannot be secured. To accomplish this Mexico must secure its own borders, and that puts them in the same spot we are in: illegal immigrants cross through Mexico from their southern border and coastlines.

Long national borders that cross land and meet the sea can’t be completely secured. The United States borders cannot be “secured” at all – the entire concept is ludicrous.

The solution to illegal immigration is to be found in the countries the immigrants come from. Stable and responsible governments, healthy economies, and jobs that can support a viable middle class will stem the tide of illegal immigration. The U.S. can do far more good for the world and itself if it engages other countries in this hemisphere, rather than participating in adventures in the East.

But that solution isn’t easy to articulate in a 30-second sound bite, and isn’t as simple as building a fence. It’s complicated, will take real vision and hard work on the part of the government, and will have to overcome a couple of centuries of distrust. All things our government is no longer any good at, and that Barack Obama certainly can’t handle.

People have been crossing our southern border, going both ways, since the 19th century. The U.S. has exploited its southern neighbors shamelessly throughout its history. My great-great uncle used to ride a horse across the border in the early 20th century to rob trains for Pancho Villa. Then he brought his money back into the U.S. And he was just one small entrepreneur.

Just as the BP oil spill wasn’t stopped at the beaches, illegal immigration can’t be stopped at the border – we must go to the source.