Securing border starts with fixing immigration

Many see border security as a simple issue: just stop people from coming across, and let those who try to come illegally suffer the consequences.

The fatal shooting of a Mexican teenager by a U.S. Border Patrol agent, however, shows the deceptive complexities underlying the issue.

Sergio Adrian Hernandez, described as 15 by U.S. authorities but as 14 by his family and Mexican officials, was killed last week beneath a railroad bridge linking Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. Hernandez and other boys on the Mexican side started throwing rocks at U.S. Border Patrol agents who were detaining people who had crossed to the U.S. side. One agent pulled out his handgun and fired at the boys, striking Hernandez in the head. A witness recorded the incident with a mobile phone camera.

Mexican residents, from other children who were with Hernandez to Mexican President Felipe Calderon, have condemned the shooting as an overreaction. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has expressed regrets over the shooting and promised an investigation.

Many U.S. residents also consider the shooting unwarranted, although others say the boys had no business throwing rocks at armed law enforcement agents.

Certainly, responding to rocks with gunfire seems extreme. The agents, however, weren’t wearing anything that would protect them from the rocks. They are issued body armor, but most choose not to wear it because of the oppressive heat in which they work, which can raise health risks.

Still, getting pelted by rocks was hardly a surprise to the agents involved. Of the 1,073 attacks on agents the Border Patrol reported for 2009, only 48 involved gunfire; the vast majority were rocks and other debris thrown at them.

What motivates such attacks should be considered. Many Mexican citizens aren’t simply looking to antagonize U.S. officers. Rather, like U.S. civil rights marchers in the 1960s, they are protesting against actions and policies that, in their minds, are unjust and must be defied. And like notorious clashes in Los Angeles, at Kent State and other U.S. sites, law enforcers have felt overwhelmed by the resistance, and reacted with force that seems overblown only in retrospect.

A review of this and similar cases surely is warranted, but we should include all the issues behind illegal crossings, defiant youth and agents’ personal protection.

Most importantly, it should review the need for both countries to improve the immigration process. Mexico, where the process of securing the papers necessary to apply for U.S. entry can be difficult and even futile, is no less responsible than the U.S., where processing those applications is lengthy and inefficient.

Most people crossing into this country surely could enter legally if the process were not so cumbersome and frustrating. Making it easier for people to drive rather than sneak across the border would reduce the number of illegal crossers, and lessen the likelihood that more blood will be shed unnecessarily.