Secure the border. It’s a battle cry in political circles these days, a centerpiece in one of the most contentious issues we face as a country. But what does it mean? And how do we actually do it?

This past week I watched the debate between two state senators who want to become the next lieutenant governor of Texas. The Republican, Dan Patrick, said he would secure the border at least six different times during the debate. It got me to thinking: How will he do that? Does he own a fence-building company? How much does he have in his checking account?

What exactly does it mean to secure the border? What level of security can we realistically expect or afford? What plans exist to secure it?

Securing the border, specifically the southern border, is both a philosophical and logistical issue. Philosophically, most Americans believe our borders to be porous and out of control. Right or wrong, perception is reality in this case. Since 9/11, there has been lingering doubt among the populace whether we’re safe from invading hordes of whatever bogeyman scares you the most.

You can count me among them. I’m less afraid of being overrun by illegal immigrants than I am being infiltrated by jihadists, drug cartels and a bevy of other world problems America has managed to keep “over there” all these years. That uneasy feeling that crept into our consciousness after 9/11 has never really gone away. I suspect it never will.

It’s a perfectly reasonable expectation that we have some control over what, and who, gets into this country at any given time. Right now, we don’t perceive our southern border to be anything close to secure. It is that perception that fuels the “secure the border” crowd in political circles. They play to our collective uneasiness about what exactly is going on along the U.S.-Mexican border, in Texas and points west.

Yet there is simply no possibility to completely secure the 1,961-mile border between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. If we lined up armed troops side by side (about one foot apart), it would take 3,441,360 people to patrol that border at any given time. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, parent agency of the U.S. Border Patrol, employs 60,000 people full time.

Even if we did manage to get those 3.4 million soldiers in place, are we really prepared to give them orders to shoot on sight? That’s what it would take for them to be effective.

According to a CNN report, each year about 2,000 refugees escape from North Korea into South Korea across the Demilitarized Zone, which is only 160 miles long and is among the most secure borders in the world. If we spent billions erecting DMZ-style barriers from Brownsville to San Diego, would it make the border secure? According to the Criminal Justice Institute’s annual yearbook of prisons, at least 100 inmates a year escape from maximum security prisons in this country.

Political buzz phrases such as “secure the border” always interest me, so this week I began looking for non-partisan information about what something like that would look like. I first asked Google, which gave me 15.4 million places to look for information. The first couple of pages were a collection of political activism hotspots and a few newspaper articles about the subject. The White House’s official site said President Obama had doubled the number of Border Patrol troops, but there was more to do. Just below that, a right-wing site said Obama had failed to secure the border. There was very little objective reporting outside the worthy, boots-on-the-ground reporting done by newspapers in the region.

It confirmed something I’ve suspected all along: We (myself included) know very little about what’s really happening on our southern border. And many of those who claim they know likely have no clue. The majority of our border with Mexico isn’t even marked.

Political rancor aside, we must continue to at least try to secure the border. If that means building a fence or a wall, then we need to build it. If it means doubling the Border Patrol numbers, then we should do it.

It’s an expensive, never-ending and somewhat futile effort to secure our southern border. But what else can we do? We must continue to try. As the most powerful, and most targeted, nation on earth, it’s simply a matter of survival.

Secure borders aren’t an option anymore.

As a political punchline, “secure the border” is meaningless. As an ongoing mission, it’s indispensable.

Steve Boggs is editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald. Email sboggs@wacotrib.com.