Are U.S. borders vulnerable to terrorist infiltration?

Don't Panic ... Your War Questions Answered

Wait just a minute here. There's no reason to single out Borders. Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks are at risk, too. Heck, even B. Dalton Bookseller is at risk. That's assuming, of course, that terrorists can find a B. Dalton. I can't remember the last time I've seen one.

(Columnist pauses, reads question again.)

My bad.

Yes, U.S. borders are vulnerable to terrorist infiltration. Unfortunately, when you live in a free, open and prosperous country that gazillions of people enter and exit every year, the occasional nasty person is gonna get in.

The section of the U.S. border that gets the most attention these days is the one we share with Mexico. It stretches 2,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean just south of San Diego (or north of Tijuana, if you prefer), across California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas until it hits the Gulf of Mexico.

The reason it's getting all the attention is because it's the border that most illegal immigrants cross to get into the U.S. Depending on what newspaper you're reading, there are between 10 million and 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. right now. That number is growing rapidly. According to a "60 Minutes" report last month, an additional 500,000 people illegally immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 2005 alone.

Only about 5 percent of the U.S.-Mexican border is secured with fences or walls. The House of Representatives just passed a bill to add an additional 698 miles of walls and fences along the Mexican border, but there's good reason to doubt it will stop the flow. In the '90s, the Clinton administration built walls and fences around our busiest border crossings with Mexico, but the walls actually increased the number of illegal immigrants to the U.S.

¿Cómo es posible? According to the former head border guy in San Diego (speaking during the same "60 Minutes" report), the barriers forced Mexicans to cross into the U.S. through the sparsely populated desert and mountain areas. While it used to be common for illegal immigrants to cross back into Mexico to visit their families, the desert and mountain crossings are so difficult that many stopped going back. Instead, once they got here, they stayed, often bringing their families with them.

Another side-effect of the partial fencing of the border was that, by making crossing more difficult, the U.S. inadvertently boosted the profits of Mexico's professional people-smugglers. Human smuggling is now an even more lucrative criminal industry.

Anti-illegal immigration activists, along with Joe and Josephine Public, fear that our Mexican border is our Achilles' heel, our soft underbelly, the thermal exhaust port of our otherwise hardened Death Star. After all, if 500,000 Mexicans can cross the border, what's to stop a resourceful al-Qaedude from exchanging his turban for a sombrero and crossing into the U.S. along with them?

Well, nothing actually. For all we know, it's already been done.

But should we worry much about it? Probably not. Terrorists don't need to learn Spanish, disguise themselves as Mexicans, and trek into the U.S. through Arizona on foot. They can simply do what the 9/11 hijackers did and arrive in the U.S. by plane. The money they'd spend on tickets to Mexico and on Imodium A-D could just as easily be spent buying forged passports and visas from one of the 27 countries whose citizens are not required to be fingerprinted or undergo background checks before entering the U.S.

And if you're a terrorist trying to smuggle a bomb (dirty, nuclear or otherwise) into the U.S., there's no need to haul it across the Mexican border. You can just have it shipped.

Only about 5 percent of containers that arrive at U.S. ports actually are inspected. We could inspect more, but the Bush administration and Congress haven't allocated the funds — even though a shipping container is probably the most probable way for terrorists to smuggle a WMD into the country.

I'm not exactly sure why they haven't done it. It's not prohibitively expensive. According to Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a retired U.S. Coast Guard commander, securing U.S. ports against terrorist infiltration could be done "for the cost of two F-22 fighter jets and three days of combat in Iraq." That's scarier and more outrageous than our open border with Mexico.