January 29, 2013
by Suzy Khimm
Legislators have failed to pass a sweeping immigration overhaul for more than
five years. But there’s one piece of the 2007 immigration reform bill that
they’ve managed to accomplish: pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into
Under the Senate’s new
blueprint for reform, the legalization of undocumented immigrants would only
happen if the government “finally commit[s] the resources needed to secure the
border,” as well as strict visa enforcement for legal immigrants. It’s a
provision that’s similar to Bush’s 2007 immigration bill, which also made
legalization contingent on beefed-up border security.
The Senate’s language suggests that the government has held back from
devoting money, equipment and personnel to border security. In fact, even though
the 2007 immigration bill ultimately failed, we’ve nevertheless hit nearly all
of the targets that it established for increased border security—except for
achieving absolute “operational control” of the border and mandatory detention
of all border-crossers who’ve been apprehended.
The 2007 bill sought to increase the number of Border Patrol agents to
20,000; in FY 2011, we hit 21,444
The 2007 bill proposed to erect 300 miles of vehicle barriers, 370 miles of
fencing, 105 radar and camera towers, and four drones; by 2012, we completed 651
miles of vehicle fencing—including 352 miles of pedestrian fencing and 299
vehicle barriers—300 towers, and nine drones, according to Customs
and Border Patrol.
The 2007 bill asked for the resources for Immigration and Customs Enforcement
to detain up to 31,500 people per day; ICE now has funding to detain up to 34,000
individuals at any time, per FY 2012 appropriations.
Finally, the 2007 bill also called for what’s known as “operational control”
of the entire border, which the 2006 Secure Fence Act defined as “the
prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by
terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and
Experts generally agree that “absolute” control of the border is practically
impossible, so DHS has instead defined “effective” operational control as “the
ability to detect, respond, and interdict illegal activity at the border or
after entry into the United States,” as a Congressional Research Service report
By that definition, the government had 57 percent of the southern border under
“effective control,” up from 31 percent in 2007, due to the new border security
measures that were implemented since then. (The 2007 bill also called for
mandatory federal implementation of workplace immigration enforcement measures
like E-Verify; these have only been put into effect by certain
Such enforcement has come with a large price tag: Last year, Congress funded
Customs and Border Protection at $11.7 billion—64 percent more than FY 2006 and
million more than in FY 2011, despite the new climate of austerity . And
that doesn’t count the $600 million that Congress provided
in a separate border security bill in 2010. But the Obama administration
believes that it’s also paid dividends: In 2011, apprehensions at the border
were at 340,252—the lowest level since 1971—while the Obama administration has
immigrants at a faster rate than Bush.
Pro-immigration advocates believe that all this is proof that we’ve already
done enough on the border security front. “The border security issue is, at this
point, 90 to 95 percent solved,” says Frank Sharry, head of America’s Voice.
Republicans, however, contest
the claim that border security has improved under Obama. They point out, for
instance, that the drop in apprehensions simply reflects the fact that illegal
immigration itself has fallen sharply since the U.S. economy has gone into free
fall. Gordon Hanson, an economist at University of California, San Diego,
disputes DHS’s definition of “effective control” of the border.
“I don’t think it has much scientific merit… It’s a measure of investment.
It’s not a measure of return on investment,” Hanson told Politifact.
He acknowledges, however, that increased enforcement has indeed contributed to
at least half the drop in illegal immigration over the last five years.