February 1, 2013
by Bob Ortega and Rebekah Sanders
As Congress moves to tackle meaningful immigration reform this year, one of the obstacles may be determining when the border between the U.S. and Mexico can be declared secure.
For years, even as border enforcement increased dramatically, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and other critics charged that the federal government doesn't do enough to prevent illegal immigrants and drugs from crossing the border and that the border must be secure before there can be any action on immigration reform.
But a secure border is in the eye of the beholder.
There isn't a specific point at which one can declare the border is secure, said Jessica Zuckerman, Homeland Security research associate at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
"It's a fictitious point," she said. "We can always do more. What we need to do is make the best decisions about what we should do."
A bipartisan proposal put forward Monday by eight senators, including Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, aims to shift the discussion by moving on immigration reform and border security at the same time.
The plan would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for legal permanent status and eventually earn citizenship.
But the path to citizenship would stay on hold until the Department of Homeland Security, advised by a commission of border governors, state attorneys general and other border-community leaders, agreed that the border was secure.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama unveiled his own immigration-reform proposal. He didn't peg reform to better border security but called for more spending on surveillance and other technology along the border. He also proposed upgrading infrastructure at various ports of entry.
Defining a secure border is as much a matter of politics as numbers, said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute and former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton.
"Border enforcement has been a conversation stopper for at least six years," she said. "So, it is high time, given the incredible investment we've made, to get past the simplistic statement that our borders are out of control and talk in an informed way about how you assess the billions that Congress has invested in border security."
In 1986, as part of a law that offered amnesty to undocumented migrants, Congress began increasing funding for border security, a move that gained momentum after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Since 1986, the government has spent more than $219 billion, adjusted for inflation, on the border and immigration enforcement. Last fiscal year alone, two agencies, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, spent more than $17.9 billion.
In the past seven years, the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled to more than 21,000. The fence along the southwestern border has grown to more than 641 miles from 135 miles in 2005.
Apprehensions of undocumented migrants, since peaking at 1.7 million in 2000, dropped to 340,252 in fiscal 2011, the last year for which figures are available.
The Border Patrol says enhanced security has made it more difficult and dangerous to cross illegally, discouraging such attempts; analysts say the economic downturn played a major role.
The rapid increase in Border Patrol staffing has been problematic.
According to an internal Homeland Security report obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, lower standards and reduced screening of candidates has left the Border Patrol vulnerable to corruption.
In the past eight years, 147 agents and officers have been convicted of or charged with corruption-related offenses such as accepting bribes to let drugs in and stealing government money.
In one recent example, two months ago in Yuma, officials say an agent hired in 2010 was arrested while loading 150 pounds of marijuana into his patrol vehicle while he was on duty.
Then, too, the Border Patrol hasn't developed good ways of measuring how effectively it uses its agents and other resources, according to a Government Accountability Office study released last month.
The GAO said the Border Patrol also hasn't set clear goals or timelines for improving.
On Monday night, more than 100 southern Arizona residents packed a town hall in Douglas, a few blocks from the reddish metal border fence and a busy port of entry, to talk with U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., about border security and the GAO report.
Barber said the Border Patrol needs to do better.
"If you (get) hundreds of new agents and you have lots of new technologies, lots of mobile surveillance systems, and you have a lot of sensors, and you have drones, all of these new assets, and we still have a very high level of illegal traffic, both people and drugs, there's something missing," the congressman said. "What I think is missing is what this study revealed -- that the Border Patrol does not yet have good goals that can be measured and good decision-making about where to deploy these assets."
At the meeting, ranchers complained about agents being stationed 25 miles or more north of the border, sometimes facing north, allowing smugglers to cross through ranchlands that sprawl east of Douglas. Ranchers said they feared dangerous encounters with smugglers as well as lost cattle when smugglers cut their fences to pass through.
Asked if the answer is to hire more Border Patrol agents, one rancher said, "Hell no. We have too much damn Border Patrol. We don't need more."
Instead, the ranchers repeatedly called for agents to patrol closer to the border.
"We feel our pleas for help have been neglected," said Sue Krentz, widow of Robert Krentz, who was killed on their ranch in 2010, reigniting the border-security debate across the country. "I believe the Border Patrol is doing their honest best. But it's like in your home: You don't let people walk through your living room."
Acting Chief Patrol Agent Manuel Padilla Jr., the Border Patrol's top agent in the area, said the agency understands the concerns and is developing a strategy to address them.
"If you go back to 2004 in Douglas, we saw huge groups of people and narcotics driving through the streets. It was a chaotic border environment. ... That is no more," Padilla said. "However, we do have a lot of work to do because that traffic has now moved into the more difficult terrain for us to detect and respond to that traffic."
In a phone interview Wednesday, Meissner said Homeland Security has been developing better performance yardsticks for the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection, centering on using surveillance and other data to show not just how many people they are apprehending, but how that compares with the ones who get away.
Homeland Security is completing an index of data on border trends, based on comments by outside reviewers, spokesman Peter Boogaard said in a written statement.
Meissner said Homeland Security needs to try harder to make that information public. She said she supports the proposed commission.
By involving governors and others in border states whose views may differ from the rest of the country, it offers an opportunity to discuss appropriate levels of security.
But not everyone is convinced that defining how secure the border is will hold up immigration reform.
"What they're proposing is a fig leaf," said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for robust enforcement of immigration laws. By giving undocumented immigrants provisional legal status immediately, "any talk of the amnesty being contingent on enforcement is made meaningless on the first day," he said.
Zuckerman, at the Heritage Institute, which opposes linking immigration reform to border security, said, "Both proposals were just laying out principles. Until we see legislation, we're not going to know what some of this means."