- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

By the end of this year, the U.S. will have spent almost half a trillion dollars on Iraq since the 2003 invasion. This could easily double by the time the U.S. successfully nurtures a new Iraqi democracy to viability, including returning basic services such as water, electricity and transport even to pre-war levels. To paraphrase the late great Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, that is getting to be “real money.”

Meanwhile, as we “rebuild” Iraq, what is happening here to our own society and its infrastructure?

From hospitals to bridges, highways, roads and streets, mass transit systems, power grids, drinking water systems and hospitals and health care facilities, America is in a sad state of disrepair. One third of all bridges are deemed “structurally deficient” by the American Society of Civil Engineers. U.S. infrastructure thus gets a falling “D” grade, down from D+ five years ago. Estimated costs to put America’s infrastructure back on its feet: $1.6 trillion.

According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 75 percent of America’s school buildings are “inadequate” to meet the needs of school children. Some $300 billion are needed to bring school plants and teaching faculties up to scratch. The country’s 16,000 wastewater systems face a $12 billion shortfall for infrastructure needs, not counting funding to protect from terrorist attack. Some sewer systems are over 100 years old. As Katrina demonstrated, our domestic infrastructure problems are a lot more urgent than the meritorious attempt to democratize 25 million Iraqis.

For the most part, America’s managerial class does not use public transportation and is unaware of the extent of crumbling infrastructure, from public schools to unsafe neighborhoods. Nor, as Congress grapples with immigration reform, has anyone raised the social, economic and legal costs arising from this witch’s brew of failing infrastructure, illegal aliens, health care and rampant crime.

In Los Angeles, 95 percent of outstanding homicide warrants are for illegal aliens. The lethal 18th Street Gang has an estimated 20,000 members, over half illegal aliens, according to a ranking member of LAPD, speaking not for attribution. The LA-based MS-13 (Mara Salvatruchka), whose membership was originally limited to street-tough Salvadorans, now numbers 50,000 (10,000 in Los Angeles alone). These gangs thrive where infrastructure decays.

This criminal imprint stretches from coast to coast and is present in every major city. MS-13 arose from the defeated Marxist FMLN in El Salvador and now has links with the Cosa Nostra. FBI counterintelligence agents worry about al Qaeda infiltration through Central America. MS-13 has an estimated 300,000 members in Mexico and Central America. Interestingly, its MO is to redistribute the fruits of its crimes to a network of corner stores owned and operated by Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants that sell at heavily discounted prices and causes them to think they steal from the rich to give to the poor, uncynically pirating the Robin Hood sobriquet.

With 1 out of 4 illegals caught crossing the 1,940-mile border with Mexico, the net illegal influx into the United States is between 3 and 4 million each and every year. So 20 million illegals now in the U.S. is probably a safer bet than the 12 million figure bandied about Congress. All of this adds huge costs to the nation, especially for healthcare. Pregnant women who deliver “anchor” babies shortly after eluding border patrols have an instant U.S. citizen in the family. The 14th Amendment stipulates anyone born in the U.S. is a U.S. citizen. Anchor strains on emergency facilities have bankrupted scores of hospitals in the Border States.

The 1985 Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), an unfunded federal mandate, requires emergency departments to treat any uninsured emergency free of charge. Anchor babies pull illegal mothers, fathers and siblings into permanent residency — and public welfare aid.

Scams are common. In one clinic, some 300 people were diagnosed as “mildly mentally retarded.” They all had the same translator, psychiatrist, symptoms — and similar stipends. All of these put further pressure on a health care system whose costs are soaring out of sight.

Iraq has been debated politically, strategically, legally and emotionally. It must also be examined in the harsh light of “how much is enough” and what the nation must forego to pay for Iraq.

As for America’s infrastructure, no doubt it would take an event comparable to September 11, 2001, or worse, for us to react. Whether we can afford for that to happen or not can easily become the dominant issue in the 2006 and 2008 elections. But consider first the costs of failing to take action now before the expense of “spending real money” is really unaffordable.

Arnaud de Borchgrave and Harlan Ullman are senior advisers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mr. de Borchgrave is also editor at large for The Washington Times and United Press International.

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