Robert Price is The Californian's editorial page editor. Email him at rprice@bakersfield.com.

Driving back from lunch the other day, I saw not one but three versions of the same bumper sticker: "Secure the Border." I found myself hoping I'd get stuck at a red light alongside one of those drivers so I could ask, "What do you mean by that?" To which the driver would surely reply, "What, did you hit your head? Secure the border means secure the border."

"Secure border" advocates might point to the words of Congressman Kevin McCarthy, who is currently being subjected to one of the most intense (and at times uncomfortable) lobbying efforts I've seen outside a presidential campaign's stretch run. The issue is immigration reform, and the pro- and con- sides each have McCarthy by one arm, and they're tugging. McCarthy hasn't fully committed either way, as befits his job description: "... We must fix our broken immigration system," he declared in a recent written statement, "through a step-by-step legislative approach that focuses on securing the border first."

Those words again. Does that mean fences? Where? How long? How high? Video cameras? Infrared imaging? Drone surveillance? An infusion of Border Patrol agents that rivals the Normandy landing? Or, as our wise-guy president cracked in a May 2011 speech, moats and alligators? Some of those details were nailed down in the Secure Fence Act of 2006, passed by a Republican Congress. But the Act, which called for 652 miles of double fencing along the 2,000-mile Mexican border, lost most of its teeth the following year when Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, proposed an amendment that gave the Department of Homeland Security the discretion to decide what type of fence is appropriate for specific areas, since double fencing won't work everywhere.

So, does that mean the border is secure as soon as Homeland Security says it is? I guess so. And what do you know -- that's pretty much what then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano claimed while speaking before the Senate Judicial Committee back in April. To which that famous renouncer of Canadian citizenship, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said: " ... if (border security) is simply the subjective assessment of a host of factors, how can we have any confidence that the border will be secured...?" Cruz said he wants "objective metrics," not the "operational control" Napolitano said DHS has achieved. Apparently the folks in D.C. can't agree on what it means to "secure the border" either.

President Obama likes to make fun of Republicans' obsession with a Mexican-proof border, but he has done a reasonable job of reinforcing that geographic delineation. Under his watch, and following up on Bush's progress in this regard, the number of Border Patrol agents posted nationally has grown to 21,000, more than double the number in 2001.

That might represent an important element of a "secure border" to some people, but it's really just more "objective metrics."

As Christopher Wilson, an authority on border management, told the Tampa Bay Times in June: "You can't deploy border security; it must be something that is achieved. This gets into one of the major problems with the whole border security debate -- the lack of an accepted definition of the term."

When we toss around phrases like "secure the border" we're really just conjuring up our own reality. Which is fine: that's how most of life works. But to use such a nebulous goal as a prerequisite for legislative action that almost everyone, including McCarthy, agrees must take place eventually is ridiculous. It becomes a red herring, a way to placate both the most staunchly anti-immigration elements of the right and a category of others, also predominately conservative, stuck in the middle -- employers desperate to fill job openings in agriculture, construction and other fields.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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