Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Southern Arizona in the Crosshairs

Tucson Weekly
March 21, 2013
by Todd Miller

Razor wire was coiled around a rudimentary wooden shelter. Under it, a hunched man concentrated, looking into his laptop. Cameras and radar were set up on a retractable mast behind him and could detect any activity at long range, day and night. Desert camouflage covered this large mobile surveillance machine, which was surrounded by sandbags and desert shrubs.

Dressed sharply in a suit and tie, the man was not in a militarized border zone. The DRS Technologies salesman was in the Phoenix Convention Center, trying, as the midsize military and electronics company's motto asserts, to draw "clarity from the clutter."

This "bring the battlefield to the border" scenario (as another sales representative put it), was in play throughout the spacious exhibition hall at the seventh annual Border Security Expo on March 12 and 13. Almost 200 companies big (Raytheon) and small (Tucson-based StrongWatch), were competing for the multibillion-dollar border policing pie.

The exhibition hall was a bustling mall for the surveillance state. Uniformed Border Patrol agents and other law enforcement personnel were among the civilians browsing the exhibitor booths. Products ranging from minisurveillance drones to self-heating meals (with a three-year shelf life) to semi-automatic weapons were on display. Overhead, a surveillance blimp kept an eye on everybody walking around. In the middle of the hall was a tower able to withstand a high-level blast. It looked like something from a military base in Afghanistan, but it's now envisioned for border control.

"It's as if the United States is pulling out of Afghanistan, and invading Arizona," said Dan Millis of the Sierra Club's Tucson-based Borderlands Campaign, which opposes any new border fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In 2012, the U.S. government spent $18 billion on border and immigration enforcement agencies, more than on all other federal law enforcement agencies—including the FBI, DEA, Secret Service and several others'—combined. Tucson and Southern Arizona are front and center in this border policing bonanza, and it's one of the reasons the Washington D.C.-based DRS Technologies has also set up shop at the University of Arizona's Science and Technology Park on Rita Road.

The UA tech park has identified 57 border technology companies working in and around Tucson in what Bruce Wright, associate vice president for university research parks, called an "emerging industry cluster." Wright said that when you consider the international market for border technology, it is a booming industry approaching $20 billion in sales in 2013 and projected to reach $54.4 billion by 2018.

"Here we are living on the border—turning lemons into lemonade. If we are to deal with the problem, what is the economic benefit from dealing with it?" Wright said during a February 2012 interview. "Well, we can build an industry around this problem that creates employment, wages, and wealth for this region ... and this technology can be sold all over the world. So it becomes an industry cluster that is very beneficial to us in Southern Arizona."

The tech park is offering testing and evaluation services for border technology on its 1,345 acres, which includes a mockup with 18,000 linear feet of border fencing surrounding its solar farm. The tech park's business incubator helps startup border tech companies commercialize their products and gets them connected with the right people. At a March 1 event, when the tech park was showcasing DRS Technologies' integrated fixed-tower system (which included a command and control center), Wright said that "Southern Arizona could become the leading center in the world for the development and deployment of this technology."

This shouldn't be a surprise. Although in 2011 DHS canceled its contract with the Boeing Corp. for the previous technology surveillance plan known as SBInet, all eyes are still on the possibility of a virtual "wall" across Southern Arizona as part of an ever-expanding enforcement web. Many companies at the expo, including DRS, hope to make their debut in the Sonoran desert, outdoing Boeing's surveillance towers, which had difficulty with Arizona's rugged terrain.

At the expo, Mark Borkowski of U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition assured anxious industry reps that the Arizona Technology Deployment Plan would happen. So expect to see more remote, mobile and fixed surveillance technology in the desert south of Tucson. Even with declining arrests of immigrants, Tucson continues to be the Border Patrol's busiest sector. The agency reports that there have been increased border-crossings in south Texas, where it also plans to concentrate new technology.

About the only thing dampening the upbeat mood of the border-protection industry was the sequester, the across-the-board federal budget cuts that went into effect March 1. However, according to Borkowski, the sequester touched very little of the money designated for technology. Companies at the expo were also enthusiastic about the improved prospects for immigration reform and the step-up in border policing that could come with the reforms.

Sarah Launius of the Tucson-based humanitarian aid group No More Deaths posed a question probably not widely considered at the expo: "When government and industry talk about 'border security' we have to ask 'security for whom?'" Since Sept. 11, the United States has spent $791 billion on homeland security, which outdoes the cost of the entire New Deal by (an inflation-adjusted) $300 billion. To answer one part of Launius' question: It certainly means a great deal of financial security for some of the companies selling cameras, sensors, drones, tanks and barriers in the buzzing exhibition hall in Phoenix.

Senate ‘Gang of 8’ Members Pledge To Bolster Border Security On Arizona Trip

Talking Points Memo
March 27, 2013
by Benjy Sarlin

Senators working on a bipartisan immigration bill toured the Arizona border Wednesday in an effort to reassure worried hawks that security will be a top priority in any legislation they produce.

“What I learned today is we have adequate manpower, but not adequate technology,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told reporters after meeting with Border Patrol agents.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) stressed the hardware side of the equation as well, calling for “constant surveillance over the entire length of the border” via improved equipment. Illustrating his point, he tweeted shortly before the press conference that he, Schumer, and Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Michael Bennett (D-CO), had just watched a woman climb over an 18-foot border fence before being apprehended.

Responding to a reporter’s question, McCain said that the border security issue was more urgent because of Congress’ failure to reach a deal replacing sequester cuts.

“There’s no doubt that our border is less secure because of the sequester and we’ll be doing everything we can to restore that funding,” he said.

The Senate group has yet to release a draft of their bill (Schumer put their status at “90 percent” complete), but an early framework includes a requirement that certain border metrics be met before undocumented immigrants can apply for green cards and citizenship. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano expressed concern this week that the border “trigger” could end up being too vague and stranding millions of immigrants in legal limbo. Republican lawmakers, led by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rand Paul (R-KY), have said the trigger concept is absolutely necessary to draw GOP support.

McCain told reporters that he did not see the Senate group’s border measures as a long term barrier to citizenship.

“I believe that if we do the right thing … that over a relatively short period of time with the proper use of technology, with the proper coordination between different agencies that we will be able to see that we have a degree of border security that will allow people to move forward with a path to citizenship,” he said.

McCain, other senators to tour U.S.-Mexico border with immigration reform on their minds

Associated Press
March 27, 2013

A group of U.S. senators who will be influential in shaping and negotiating details of an immigration reform package is traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona to get a firsthand look at issues affecting the region.

Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona were expected to tour the border today with Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado. They are all members of the so-called Gang of Eight — a bipartisan group that has spent recent weeks trying to craft proposed immigration legislation.

The trip comes as Congress is in recess and as the lawmakers wrap up a bill designed to secure the border and put 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. President Barack Obama has urged Congress to pass immigration reform this year, and border security is critical to McCain and other Republicans who contend that some areas along the border are far from secure.

"I wish every member of the United States Senate and Congress could see the border," McCain told reporters in Phoenix on Monday. "Only when you can see the expanse, the difficulties and the challenges of the border, can you really appreciate the need for our border security."

With top Republicans and Democrats focused on the issue, immigration reform faces its best odds in years. The proposed legislation will likely put illegal immigrants on a 13-year path to citizenship and would install new criteria for border security, allow more high- and low-skilled workers to come to the U.S. and hold businesses to tougher standards on verifying their workers are in the country legally.

McCain sought to lower expectations for the bill Monday during a town hall in Phoenix. He told immigration activists they wouldn't be completely happy with the measure and warned that the group must overcome difficult disagreements.

"We've made progress in a number of areas that I am encouraged by, but there are still areas that we are not in agreement," he said.

McCain said the lawmakers had reached an agreement on protections for young illegal immigrants brought to the country as children and on visas for workers, but declined to provide specifics.

Reports indicate that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, negotiating through the Gang of Eight senators, had reached significant agreement Friday on a new visa program to bring up to 200,000 lower-skilled workers a year to the country. The groups did not reach consensus on how much the workers would be paid.

The bill is expected to be lengthy and cover numerous issues, including limiting family-based immigration to put a greater emphasis on skills and employment ties instead.

The legislation was initially promised in March, but the lawmakers have since said they won't be done until at least April. Immigration proponents have said the group needs to introduce legislation soon, while some Republican lawmakers complain the process has moved too quickly.

If passed, the legislation could usher in the most sweeping changes in immigration law in nearly 30 years.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Steve King: If China Can Build The Great Wall, We Can Build A Border Fence

Huffington Post
March 25, 2013
by Preston Maddock

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a relentless opponent of comprehensive immigration reform, on Saturday outlined a simple solution to the complex issue: build a better border fence.

"I supported the fence," King told Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly on her radio program, according to Right Wing Watch. Building a fence along the approximately 2,000 mile Mexican-American border would not "be too much of an engineering marvel," King argued.

"We can do the Panama Canal 100 years-plus ago and I’ve been over there to take a look at the Great Wall of China that was built more than 2,000 years ago, and that’s 5,500 miles long," King said. "So building a fence is not that hard; I’ll just show you how to do it if it’s too complicated for our public policy people to get their mind around."

(Click over to Right Wing Watch for audio of King's comments.)

Later in the program, King spoke with a caller named Meryl, who claimed undocumented immigrants had allegedly trespassed on her property. King warned her that if the United States continued to have "open borders" it might go the way of "Third World countries" like "Mexico" and "places in the Caribbean or in Africa where there’s no law or very little law."

"If lawlessness prevails then the more wealthy build a better, more effective barrier around their own compounds," King cautioned.

King's comments came in response to a set of recommendations published last week by the Republican National Committee, which called for a modernization of the GOP's platform on immigration in order to stay competitive within America's evolving electorate. To gain support among Hispanic voters, the report said, the GOP “must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform."

King's resistance to his party's changing politics is not surprising considering his position as one of Congress's staunchest immigration hardliners. During his recent address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, King called immigration reform a "deconstruction" of the rule of law.

Republicans on immigration reform: Before and after

Washington Post blog
March 20, 2013
by Rachel Weiner

The Washington Post editorial board noted Wednesday that the “Immigration” section of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s 2013 gubernatorial campaign website, which until recently touted his tough policies cracking down on illegal residents, has disappeared. If  Cuccinelli is considering a softer stance on immigration, he’s far from the only one in his party.

In the mid-2000s there “was just a remarkable lurch to the right in search of votes in competitive primaries, and it distorted where the Republican party had traditionally been on immigration,” said Frank Sharry of the pro-reform group America’s Voice. “I think that Republicans are politically driven to come back to the table, and once they’re there, they realize that comprehensive immigration reform is really in line with Republican principles.”

Here’s a rundown of Republicans who have embraced new policies — or at least, a new and more accommodating – since the 2012 election:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

Before: In early 2011, Paul teamed up with Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) on an attempt to end birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. “Citizenship is a privilege, and only those who respect our immigration laws should be allowed to enjoy its benefits,” said Paul. Later that year, he also expressed concern that legal immigrants coming in on student visas or as refugees were not being properly screened.

After: Paul is endorsing immigration reform that would allow the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to obtain legalized status. He is against a special “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants, but open to those immigrants applying for citizenship through the current process. He has said that if immigration reform is completed, he will rethink his position on birthright citizenship.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)

Before: In a 2010 Republican Senate primary debate, Rubio attacked then-Gov. Charlie Crist on immigration: “If you grant amnesty, as the governor proposes that we do, in any form, whether it’s back of the line or so forth, you will destroy any chance we will ever have of having a legal immigration system that works here in America.” In a subsequent debate, he said that illegal immigrants should leave the country and reapply for citizenship from their homelands. While he expressed some reservations about Arizona’s controversial immigration legislation, he supported the law after tweaks were made. He opposed the DREAM Act, although he was for some accommodation for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

After: Rubio is now the most high-profile member of a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” working on immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. “After weighing both sides of it I just concluded – that every country that’s done this, that’s had millions of people living in it that are permanently barred from applying for citizenship, it hasn’t worked out really well for them,” he said.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.)

Before: Cantor voted against the DREAM Act in 2010, which would grant permanent residency and a chance for citizenship to some young illegal immigrants. In speaking about immigration, he argued that laws should be “evenly applied.”

After: In a highly-publicized speech early last month, Cantor came out in support of “an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home” — the tenets of the DREAM Act.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.)

Before: In December 2010, Coffman called the DREAM Act “a nightmare for the American people.” He supported ending birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, and he proposed legislation to make Colorado ballots English-only.

After: Coffman now supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and is undecided on how to deal with adults. His congressional district became significantly less Republican and more Hispanic in redistricting, and Coffman has said that meeting some of his new constituents provoked the change of heart.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.)

Before: Goodlatte has long been known as an immigration hardliner, earning an A+ rating from the anti-immigration group NumbersUSA. He has supported bills that would limit birthright citizenship, limit family reunification preferences and end the diversity visa lottery.  He was also a vocal opponent of bipartisan “amnesty” legislation in 2007.

After: As the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Goodlatte has surprised immigration reform advocates. He told reporters at a recent Christian Science Monitor breakfast that he is open to legalization and the possibility of citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)

Before: In 2007, Jordan criticized comprehensive immigration reform. “I cannot think of a more misguided approach to one of the most pressing issues facing our country today,” he wrote in an op-ed. “[W]e must reject ‘amnesty’ for illegal aliens.  Allowing these individuals to enjoy the benefits of American citizenship — whether through special visas or otherwise — is nothing less than rewarding their illegal behavior.”

After: At a Heritage Foundation panel Wednesday, Jordan said he was “willing to consider” a proposal that would allow illegal immigrants to eventually apply for citizenship.

The Republican National Commitee

Before: The Republican party platform in 2012 promised “humane procedures to encourage illegal aliens to return home voluntarily, while enforcing the law against those who overstay their visas.”

After: The RNC has urged Republicans to embrace comprehensive immigration reform. “One of the issues that I think really cut pretty badly within the Hispanic community is when Mitt Romney talked about self-deportation,” Chairman Reince Priebus said on CNN. “And you know, it really doesn’t — it’s not our party’s position. But it was something that I think hit every kitchen table across America.”

Friday, March 22, 2013

Texas Border Residents Argue Against More Security

Public Radio International the World
March 18, 2013
by Jason Margolis

The city of Laredo, Texas has a bit of a branding problem. Raymond Camina says when some people walk into his shop – Basket & Pottery Alley – they’re confused.

“A lot of people assume they’re in Mexico,” said Camina. “Because we’ve had a lot of people here in the store say, ‘Wow, this is like shopping in Texas. Well, we are in Texas. Or they’ll say, ‘do you accept dollars?’ Yes, we accept dollars, why wouldn’t we?”

This sounds crazy, but this has happened to Camina more than a few times.

“At first we used laugh about it, but then it got more prevalent. Over and over, like, wow, there is a big confusion.”

Camina thinks people get confused because there’s a security checkpoint on the highway 29 miles north of this border city. These interior checkpoints are second lines of defense used by the Department of Homeland Security to thwart illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

Camina said he understands the need for heightened security here, but shoppers are afraid to come to Laredo. And Washington’s calls for more security aren’t helping.

“I think it’s a little over exaggerated. But I don’t have the intelligence they have. But what I see, just from a business point of view, it makes it seem like we’re being invaded.”

Many people along the border back up this claim.

“What we hear a lot are the helicopters, the helicopters all night, overhead and then they stop,” said Sandra Rocha Taylor, excecutive director of Laredo Main Street, an organization dedicated to revitalizing downtown Laredo.

“I live one mile from the border, and I have border patrol cars racing down my street all the time, to what end I don’t know,” said Michael Seifert, a community activist who coordinates the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network from the town of Alamo, “We have kids who play kickball in the street, so it’s kind of like, what’s that about?”

Everybody I spoke with along this stretch of the border shakes their head at the idea of more border security. Homemade signs along the Rio Grande River read simply: “No Border Wall.”

Some say that money spent on the border wall— which can cost as much as $21 million per mile — is misguided.

“We have seen the billions of dollars that have been spent on security. And then you think about the real issues as far as healthcare, the real issues as far as a lack of a good education” said Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of the immigrant-rights organization LUPE in the Rio Grande Valley.

This area is one of the poorest parts of the country, and Valdez-Cox said the money going toward security can be better allocated.

“And so, that’s where we think that the resources should go to. We just don’t believe that they should continue to use the security issue as a problem so that they don’t have to deal with fixing the real issues of immigration reform. It’s just a cop-out in our opinion.”

She added that, of course, people want to be safe and they support some security, but enough is enough.

“Living here, I’ve never felt in danger. We don’t feel that pressing urgency of the violence issue that they talk about in Washington.”

According to the crime statistics, this place is pretty safe.

I met with Victor Rodriguez, the chief of police in the Rio Grande city of McAllen. He showed me reports comparing major crime categories of nearby border towns vs. big Texas cities like Dallas and Houston.

The bottom-line: You’re three to four times safer along this stretch of border. Of course, part of the credit has to go to the increased presence of federal agents who patrol here.

Still, Rodriguez is tired of how so many people describe the border as some sort of a war zone.

“My God, do we cut it off at the San Antonio river now and give the rest of the state back to Mexico?” he said, mimicking what people say. “It’s so bad down there kind of stuff.”

That skewed perception also keeps Mexicans away too. But that’s not because they’re afraid; it’s just harder to visit.

Sandra Rocha Taylor’s office in Laredo is just a few yards from the Rio Grande River. Outside her window, hundreds of people are lined up on a pedestrian bridge, waiting to enter the United States.
“The lines are tremendous, you can wait two, three, four hours, it just depends on what time of the day it is,” she said.

“I don’t think there can ever be too much security, but there’s too much time lost,” said Maria Eugenia Calderón-Porter, who directs the Bi-National Center at Texas A&M International University in Laredo.

Laredo is America’s busiest inland port, and Calderón-Porter said Washington needs to direct more funding to getting the lines moving.

“You have people standing in line for hours in the sun, cars idling, trucks idling to cross at the World Trade Bridge (Laredo), losing time and money. So, we have to be more reasonable. Okay, if our list for allowing somebody to come in is a very long list, provide the manpower and the facilities to do it with.”

Of course, Washington’s focus on security isn’t just about protecting border towns. It’s about stopping illegal entry and keeping smuggled drugs out of places like Missouri, Georgia and Ohio.
That argument gets little sympathy along the border though.

Michael Seifert in Alamo said, “So, the other side of that, I would like to say to the senator from Ohio: You guys need to clean up your ship, putting in programs that help people with addiction problems. I think that really needs to be looked at seriously. Because the flow is not going to stop, it’s too profitable. It’s way too much money.”

Seifert said a bigger wall or more drones won’t stop smugglers—or people determined to enter the US to start a new life.

“It’s an unending story,” said Seifert. “Is the border secure? Well it is, or it’s not.”

Perhaps the better question is: How do you decide if the border is secure? And who ultimately will get to make that determination?

Officials Concede Failures on Gauging Border Security

New York Times
March 22, 2013
by Julia Preston

More than two years after Homeland Security officials told Congress that they would produce new, more accurate standards to assess security at the nation’s borders, senior officials from the department acknowledged this week that they had not completed the new measurements and were not likely to in coming months, as the debate proceeds about overhauling the immigration system.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers were taken aback at a hearing on Wednesday in the House of Representatives when Mark Borkowski, a senior Homeland Security official, said he had no progress to report on a broad measure of border conditions the department had been working on since 2010. The lawmakers warned that failure by the Obama administration to devise a reliable method of border evaluation could imperil passage of immigration legislation.
“We do not want the Department of Homeland Security to be the stumbling block to comprehensive immigration reform for this country,” said Representative Candice Miller, a Republican from Michigan who is the chairwoman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on border security. She told Mr. Borkowski that the lack of security measurements from the administration “could be a component of our failure to pass something I think is very important for our country.”
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, a Democrat and strong a supporter of President Obama’s immigration proposals, was more blunt. “I would say to the department, you’ve got to get in the game,” she said.
Amid contentious discussions in Congress over immigration, one point of wide agreement is that an evaluation of border security will be a central piece of any comprehensive bill. A bipartisan group in the Senate is working to write legislation that includes a “trigger,” which would make the path to citizenship for more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the country contingent on measurable advances in security at the borders.
Lawmakers have been pressing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to devise a measure they can use to judge if the Obama administration’s claims of significant progress in border enforcement are justified. Republican senators in the bipartisan group have said a border standard is pivotal to their efforts.
“We need to have a measurement,” Senator John McCain of Arizona insisted at a hearing in the Senate last week.
“We need to assure the American people that we have effective control of the border and we have made advances to achieve that,” he said. “I need to have something to assure people they are not going to live in fear.”
Obama administration officials said on Thursday that they had resisted producing a single measure to assess the border because the president did not want any hurdles placed on the pathway to eventual citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
They also said security conditions could change very rapidly along the border depending on where smugglers tried to bring people and narcotics across, and where border agents were concentrating their technology and other resources.
“While border security is complex and cannot be measured in a single metric,” said Peter Boogaard, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, “in every metric available to measure progress, we’re heading in the right direction, including decreased apprehensions and increased seizures.”
Ms. Miller and Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, have said they are preparing legislation that would compel administration officials to produce border measurements if they do not come forward with them in coming weeks.
For several years before 2010, border officials used a measure known as operational control to describe the level of security along the southwest line. But in 2010, Ms. Napolitano said the department would drop that standard, arguing it did not reflect a substantial buildup of agents and detection technology in recent years, and it was insufficiently flexible to account for the varying terrain and fast-changing conditions along the nearly 2,000-mile southwest border, where most illegal crossings occur.
In a recent interview, David V. Aguilar, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said he had first proposed the concept of operational control years ago when he was the chief of the Border Patrol. He said it was meant to describe immediate conditions in limited patrol sectors, and he lamented that it had become the broadest measure of security advances across the entire border.
“It was never meant to be applied that way,” Mr. Aguilar said.      
Since 2010, border officials have reported their results to the public mainly in terms of apprehensions they make of illegal crossers. Those figures have declined sharply across the southwest line, in what many experts agree is a sign of sharply reduced illegal flows. But border officials acknowledge that apprehensions alone are an imperfect indicator.
So Mr. Borkowski, an assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, and other officials have been working on what they have called the Border Condition Index. They advised Congress that it would assemble many different variables, including crime rates in cities and towns along the border, and daily flows of legitimate travelers and commerce through the ports of entry.
Officials said the index would provide a broad, easily understandable view of enforcement at the border and the sense of security of Americans living near it.
But as the immigration debate has gathered speed, even border analysts who praise the Obama administration’s enforcement efforts have grown frustrated with the Department of Homeland Security’s reluctance to produce data to assess them.
“By every available measure, the border is far more secure today than it has ever been,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in immigration. “But D.H.S. does not have a reliable set of performance measures with respect to border security, and it has been utterly remiss in releasing data that would help Congress make a serious assessment.”
At the hearing on Wednesday, Mr. Borkowski said the border index was still undergoing internal reviews, and he gave no time frame for when it would be ready. He also told Ms. Miller that the index would not be useful to assess border security as part of the negotiations over a comprehensive bill.
Ms. Miller and other lawmakers were stunned. “I’ve been operating under the assumption for the last several years,” she said, that the index would be something that “anybody or any other agency vetting this would be using as a measurement.”
Ms. Jackson Lee, the highest ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, blasted Mr. Borkowski for not offering a concrete standard. “You all have got to rise to the occasion,” she said.
Michael J. Fisher, the chief of the Border Patrol, who also testified, sought to respond to the lawmakers, saying he would provide figures on numbers of illegal crossers who were caught more than once, and estimates of the percentages of those crossers who were detained and of those who got away.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

How to Measure the Effectiveness of Border Security

Public Radio International the World
March 18, 2013
by Jason Margolis

The US government has devoted a lot of resources to sealing the US-Mexican border. But just how effective has the build-up been, and what is the best way to measure it?

Host Marco Werman speaks with Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has been researching these questions.

Alden said the government’s data is complete. “When Congress asks the Department of Security: ‘Give us some evidence about where border security is at.’ DHS has very little to provide.”

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Marco Werman: Answering those questions Jason just raised isn’t easy. It can be a very subjective exercise in fact. But Edward Alden has been trying for the past couple of years. Here’s a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Alden testified last week in front of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs about ways to measure the effectiveness of border enforcement. So, Edward Alden, it seems a big debate in Washington right now as we wait for the runway to clear before any substantive immigration reform happens is assessing whether US borders are secure or not. Many republicans say no. The White House says they’re plenty secure. So how does the United State currently measure the effectiveness of border enforcement?

Edward Alden: Really, the only thing the Dept. of Homeland Security does is it counts the number of arrests it makes, and so if one individual who’s arrested two or three times, that counts as two or three apprehensions. And they release that number every year. And the number last year at the border of Mexico was about 350,000, which is way way down from where it was say in 2000, when that number was over 1.6 million. So a big decline clearly in the number of people trying to enter, but it’s hard to know exactly what that apprehensions figure means.

Werman: Yeah, what, what do pure arrests say about the porousness of the borders? Does it say something

Alden: Well, it’s hard to know because you don’t know how many people are trying, so it doesn’t tell you that apprehensions out of how many people who were attempting to enter. The presumption is it means that fewer people are trying and so that enforcement is effectively deterring people from trying to enter illegally, but we really don’t know that. That’s a supposition based on those numbers.

Werman: So one point that you’ve made is that the US government has failed to develop good measures for fixing goals and determining progress in terms of border security, and that the government’s data is kind of cloudy and incomplete. What does that mean?

Alden: Well, it just means that we know when congress asks the Dept. of Homeland Security, give us some evidence about where border security is at, DHS has little to provide. All they can offer is they can say well, we have twice as many border patrol agents as we had a decade ago, or crime rates in El Paso, or Laredo are very low by national standards, but DHS can’t provide some of the data that helps answer the question that members of congress want answers to, which is how difficult is it to get across that border illegally. And I think until that evidence starts to be provided to congress and the public, it’s gonna be very hard to have a sensible debate over these issues because nobody really has good data off which to base their position.

Werman: Is it your position that the Dept. of Homeland Security has the data and they’re just not providing it or they don’t even have the data?

Alden: I think in a lot of cases they have the data and they’re not providing it. I think they’re worried about the political consequences of coming out with that data and in other cases I think they just haven’t put the effort into gathering and assembling the data in the way they should.

Werman: So as we’re waiting for kind of this baseline of data so we know what to improve on, do you see any room for compromise in congress?

Alden: I do think so. I think there are serious efforts underway to try first to require that the administration present more of this data to congress and the public, and secondly to try to make the best assessments with the available data, perhaps put some triggers in place that tie certain elements to the bill to continue progress on border security. So I think there is a serious effort to move from the debate we’ve had over the last four or five years, which is just debatable. Is the border secure, is the border not secure, to try and actually get quite precise about what we need…get some data in there and try to get some agreement on where we want to move going forward.

Werman: Let me just ask you, what do you think? Do you think the border is secure right now?

Alden: I think it’s far more secure than it’s ever been before, but I think we have to be realistic. We are a big, open country and people are always gonna get in if they’re really determined. We’ve done a little bit of historical research on what was probably the most secure border in history, which was the Cold War interGerman border. So we’re talking about a border here with comparatively about three times as many agents as we have on the border with Mexico.

Werman: You’re talking about Checkpoint Charlie.

Alden: Yeah, and barbed wire, shoot to kill, floodlights. About a thousand people a year still made it across that border. The apprehension rate there was roughly about 95%. So we are not going to get a perfectly secure border with Mexico or any other country, so we do have to be realistic here, but no question there’s been a lot of progress.

Werman: Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, thank you.

Alden: Thanks very much, Marco.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

In Arizona, border security in spotlight amid immigration-reform efforts, sequester cuts

Washington Post
March 17, 2013
by Pamela Constable

With the winter sun’s glare bouncing off his old red pickup, John Ladd drives slowly along the 10-foot wall of iron stakes and steel mesh that crosses his 14,000-acre cattle ranch, dividing his great-grandfather’s land from the Mexican desert but not always keeping intruders out.

“Here’s where the drug smugglers cut through the wall in January,” Ladd says, pointing to a large jagged square in the metal that has since been rewelded. “They use blowtorches and hydraulic grinders. They can get a truck through in minutes, and as soon as they reach the highway they’re gone.”

Ladd’s ranch in the southeastern corner of Arizona is dotted with cameras on stilts, and U.S. Border Patrol trucks cruise the range daily, scattering his Herefords and Angus. Beyond the wall, Mexican soldiers patrol in Humvees. Before it was erected in 2007, illegal migrants constantly camped in his bushes on their way north. These days, fewer make the attempt, but a more sophisticated and dangerous threat has replaced them.

“There’s less people but more drugs,” Ladd says. “The cartels control everything that crosses. The Border Patrol has a huge presence, but it’s not enough, and it’s not the answer. No matter what they say in Washington, the border is not secure.”

The issue of border security — hard to measure but easy to manipulate — has long been a sticking point in the debate over illegal immigration. The Obama administration, hoping to win congressional support for an overhaul of immigration law, increased spending on customs and border enforcement to a record $12 billion in 2012, and it claims to have reduced infiltration of the 2,000-mile U.S.-
Mexico border to its lowest level in decades.

But now, with the across-the-board sequester cuts expected to take a $500 million bite out of the immigration enforcement budget and cut the equivalent of 5,000 jobs from a Border Patrol force of 21,000 agents, new concerns over border violence and drug smuggling are being raised by administration critics, immigration officers and some ­border-area residents.

Back at center of debate

Arizona, a Republican-led border state, has long played an outsize role in the immigration wars. It enacted the nation’s toughest law against illegal immigrants in 2010, has spawned vigilante border-watch groups and has elected officials such as Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, icons of a national movement to seal the border and fight “amnesty” for the undocumented.

Today, as the Obama administration seeks lawmakers’ backing for steps that would legalize millions of undocumented residents, Arizona’s conservative forces are rallying for another fight. This time, they have new ammunition from sequester cutbacks and reports of Mexican drug gangs muscling in on what was once a routine cat-and-mouse game between federal agents and poor migrants.

The new battle pits Brewer against another high-profile Arizona figure, Democratic former governor Janet Napolitano, now U.S. secretary of homeland security. Napolitano insists that the U.S.-Mexico border remains more secure than it has been in years, even as she warned that Border Patrol cuts would leave fewer agents to cover rugged rural areas where most illegal crossings take place. Meanwhile, Brewer has accused the White House of using the sequester for political gain at the expense of public safety.

Asked about Arizona and its most porous border segment, a 120-mile stretch that crosses ranches such as Ladd’s and the north-south highway between Tucson and Nogales, Napolitano asserted that once-heavy illegal traffic there had fallen to its lowest level in years. The government estimates that border-area arrests across Arizona, mostly in the Tucson-Nogales region, dropped 80 percent to 125,000 between 2000 and 2012.

But some members of the border enforcement community charge that officials in Washington have deliberately exaggerated the drop in illegal crossings and unfairly focused budget cuts on their mission. They warn that smugglers of drugs and of humans will take advantage of the sequester, which is expected to reduce thousands of hours of overtime and has already led to the release of hundreds of illegal immigrants from detention.

“The real truth is not getting out. The Border Patrol is only catching 5 percent of what crosses, and they are being told not to report getaways,” charged Zack Taylor, a Nogales resident and leader of the national association of former Border Patrol employees. “Arizona is already a lawless area, and with those cuts in manpower it’s going to be wide open.”

Several law enforcement observers said illegal migrants are starting to cross in larger groups, anticipating a more tolerant U.S. government policy to result from talks in Washington. “The numbers of illegals have really picked up since they heard amnesty is coming,” Taylor said.

Ranchers such as Ladd also remain skeptical of administration claims of success. They often mention violent incidents such as the 2010 shooting death of border rancher Robert Krentz and constantly swap stories of the latest fence cuttings, of drugs being abandoned by couriers and of smugglers using empty barns as hideaways and lookout posts.

Yet now there are voices in Arizona sending different messages on immigration. A growing Hispanic electorate is feeling new muscle, some police officials are disgusted with the state’s polarized politics, and a loose fraternity of liberal business and civic leaders, many of whom benefit from cross-border commerce, is expressing discomfort with extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric and the militarization of the border region.

One of those voices belongs to Nan Waldon, a lawyer and horse breeder who co-owns a 7,000-acre pecan farm south of Tucson that employs several hundred Hispanics. In a recent interview, Waldon denounced the controversial 2010 law as a “horrible and racist” measure. The law, the toughest aspects of which were upheld by the Supreme Court last year, requires police to report suspected illegal immigrants to federal officials.

“It’s wrong for people to stereotype Mexicans and Mexican Americans as criminals and drug smugglers and ignore the fact that they are the backbone of our economy,” Waldon said. “Many people in Arizona are still afraid to speak out, but there is a silent majority who have had enough of the rhetoric that plays on the fears of ignorant people.”

Roberto Villasenor, the Mexican American police chief of Tucson, said he worries about the upswing in drug smuggling but complained that the political hijacking of border security has made it much harder to find practical solutions.

“Making the border more secure needs to be a priority, but we keep getting into a political circus, with both sides making outlandish claims to advance their agenda,” Villasenor said wearily. “The issue has been so distorted that whatever you do, the other side screams it is political. Nobody knows what to believe anymore.”

In the border boomtown of Nogales, officials are cultivating close relationships with their Mexican counterparts and business leaders are lobbying for expanded inspection services to speed the passage of Mexican trucks. Industry officials said more than $6 billion in tomatoes, peppers and other produce from Mexico enters the United States each year, nearly half of it through Nogales.

“Things have changed since the last time Congress tackled this issue,” said Doris Meissner, a former federal immigration commissioner and a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “The border is not the same place it was five years ago, and the American electoral picture is different. I don’t think the Arizona mind-set is going to have the same traction it had in the past.”

An economic entry point

The scene at Ladd’s cattle ranch, with its stark evidence of severed steel bars and high-
powered invaders, is an ominous prism through which to view the border. But just a dozen miles east, at the busy, legal Port of Entry between Douglas, Ariz., and Agua Prieta, Mexico, the picture is more complex.
On a gray winter afternoon, hundreds of Mexicans hurried home through narrow inspection lanes after another day in the United States — schoolchildren, mothers with shopping bags, and men returning from long days in a tomato processing plant 80 miles from the border.

Heading through a separate maze of wide northbound lanes were a dozen tractor-trailers carrying refrigerated crates of Mexican tomatoes, peppers and squash to supermarkets across the United States.
To Daniel Ortega, the Mexican American mayor of Douglas, the border is not a menace but a crossroads of commerce and culture. Trade with Mexico provides 80 percent of the town’s commercial revenue, while federal jobs in border-related security have helped revive the community of 18,000 since its once-dominant employer, a copper mine and foundry, shut down in the 1990s.

“Our communities are very dependent on each other,” Ortega said, noting that Douglas is now an official “sister city” with Agua Prieta. He said his main concern is trying to streamline the border inspection process, something that sequester cutbacks could easily derail. “People in the East talk about how bad the border is,” Ortega said, “but here our future depends on it.”

At one point in the afternoon, a barred government bus crossed from Douglas to Agua Prieta and two dozen Mexicans straggled out. Most carried plastic bags labeled “Department of Homeland Security” that contained wadded clothes, water bottles and other remnants of their failed attempts to sneak into the United States.

The little group shuffled into a dingy little building, run by an American volunteer group, which said “Welcome Brother Migrants” in Spanish. Slumped dejectedly in plastic chairs, they said they had been caught soon after crossing into the United States in February, briefly jailed and then bused back to Mexico.

There were couples and ­middle-aged men and a weeping woman who said she might never see her children again. All had borrowed heavily to pay guides and protection fees to drug mafias, hoping to reach a construction job in Chicago, a grape harvest in California or a spouse and children in Nebraska.

Gabriel Sosa, a 47-year-old factory worker, said he had paid $2,000 for a guide who led him and two other men to the open border at Naco. The guide told them to climb the 10-foot fence and wait for a cellphone call, then vanished.

“We hid in the grass all night and nobody called. We could hear the cattle nearby,” Sosa said. “It got colder and colder. Finally we decided to walk to the highway, and as soon as we saw a Border Patrol truck we turned ourselves in.”

The thwarted travelers said they knew U.S. penalties for illegal entry were stricter now and that Arizona was especially tough on border crossers. They complained about the fees demanded by the drug mafia, the cold cells in U.S. jails and the dense Border Patrol presence in populated areas that forced them to risk dangerous desert crossings.

Still, all said their desperation to find a job with a living wage was stronger than any of those worries. Asked what would be the best way to stop illegal immigration, several people spoke up at once, saying they would much rather work legally, even for a few months of the year, than endure the expense and hazards of crossing on their own.

“If the Americans want to stop illegal immigration, why don’t they give us work visas?” demanded a young man named Julio, who had paid $2,000 and been caught almost as soon as he crossed into Arizona. “This way we are just bait for the mafia.”

Then he shouldered his plastic bag and followed his companions to the Agua Prieta bus station and the empty-handed trip home.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Questions about border commission

March 18, 2013
by Kevin Robillard

The security of the U.S.-Mexico border, and the fate of the estimated 11 million people illegally living north of it in the U.S., may end up in the hands of that most Washington of institutions: a commission.

The recently announced outline of a bipartisan immigration reform plan from the Senate’s Gang of Eight calls for a commission made up of border-state governors, state attorneys general and “community leaders” to evaluate border security.

The commission is seen as crucial by both Republicans and Democrats because illegal immigrants could only start on the pathway to citizenship envisioned by the Gang of Eight once the border is deemed secure, and the panel is expected to have an important — although still largely undefined — role in making that determination.

”Border security is what the conservatives are really going to be focused on, and the commission is the cost of the pathway to citizenship,” said Rebecca Tallent, a former chief of staff for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who now chairs the Bipartisan Policy Center’s immigration project. “How do you thread that needle? How do you make the border commission a viable, realistic sign-off that the Republicans can support? But how do you make it so that a person who might oppose comprehensive immigration reform doesn’t have veto power?”

But some of the same factors that have hamstrung panels charged with solving the nation’s fiscal challenges (see: the Supercommittee, Simpson-Bowles) could plague a border commission, too, critics warn.
Republicans and Democrats both assume the other side is playing politics and have fundamental disagreements over how secure the border is right now, as well as who should serve on such a commission and just how much power it would have.

The Gang of Eight’s bare-bones plan includes just two sentences describing the commission, and the group has been tight-lipped about further details.

“We recognize that Americans living along the Southwest border are key to recognizing and understanding when the border is truly secure,” the bipartisan framework says. “Our legislation will create a commission comprised of governors, attorneys general, and community leaders living along the Southwest border to monitor the progress of securing our border and to make a recommendation regarding when the bill’s security measures outlined in the legislation are completed.”

For a body with such potential power, what is so far known about the commission is greatly outweighed by what isn’t. But what’s clear is that Republicans and Democrats working on immigration reform have very different ideas about the most important aspects of how the commission would function. It is expected that the Gang of Eight will flesh out its vision for the commission and other aspects of reform when it unveils more specifics about the immigration plan in the near future.


Under the plan, state attorneys general and governors from Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California would serve on the commission.

Democrats are concerned that the GOP border-state members could outnumber Democrats on the panel and they are fearful that fiercely anti-illegal immigration, pro-border security Republican governors in particular — like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Arizona Gov. Janet Brewer — could torpedo the commission’s work and block the pathway to citizenship.

Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who represents El Paso, Texas, told POLITICO he would prefer a commission made up of border-area House members or local officials. (Eight Democrats represent the border in the lower chamber, compared to only one Republican.) And Marshall Fitz, the head of immigration policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said logical appointees would include small and big city mayors along the border.

As for filling out the commission with “community leaders,” it’s unclear how they would be selected and appointed or even how many would sit on the panel.
The GOP remains wary.

“Who’s going to appoint this commission?” Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) asked on Laura Ingraham’s radio show recently. “Are we going to have a commission full of Janet Napolitanos? That’s really going to ensure enforcement, right?”

For their part, Republicans have instead suggested tapping law enforcement officials to fill out the group.
Fitz said a commission with diverse membership could kick-start a dialogue about the border, one that would continue even after reform gets under way.

“What we’re having is sort of two camps talking past each other, and the advantage of having the commission, with prominent people from all the border states, is that you could have, at least theoretically, a more robust conversation about the state of the border,” Fitz said. “The demands today won’t be the demands tomorrow. It’s a dynamic area, and there’s an evolving set of analyses that have to be made about costs and benefits of different approaches.”


Perhaps the most pressing issue for those crafting the commission is this: How much power will it have, if any? Will it be an advisory group that issues nothing more than recommendations, or will it have real authority to issue a decree on whether the border is secure, thereby allowing the pathway to citizenship process to begin for millions, or finding the border is porous and stalling the move toward citizenship for illegal immigrants?

After concern from Democrats that the commission could turn into a roadblock, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters that the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security — and not the commission — would make the final call.

“Holding immigration reform hostage to someone’s definition of a secure border could be a real problem,” Eliseo Medina, the SEIU’s secretary-treasurer, said on a conference call with reporters in early March. “This could turn into ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder.’”

While the Gang of Eight’s description of the commission says it will make a “recommendation,” Republicans insist that issue hasn’t been settled.

In interviews earlier this month with the Arizona Republic, two GOP members of the Gang of Eight, Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both said that the body’s role in making the border security determination that could trigger the path to citizenship remained up in the air.

“We’re still trying to figure that part out, and what role [the commission] plays,” Flake said.


Beyond the commission’s power, another particularly thorny problem facing the Gang of Eight involves the requirements or guidelines that would be put before the commission for it to determine how border security is defined. What does a “secure border” really mean?

Democrats fear the commission could use the elusive and perhaps impossible goal of a hermetically sealed border to delay the launch of the pathway to citizenship.

“You’re never going to certify the border secured,” Fitz told POLITICO. “There’s never going to be a ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’ sign draped across the border fencing.”

Some Republicans, like Arizona GOP Rep. Matt Salmon, would prefer using the GAO or an independent outside group to make that determination.

But Flake has hinted at a possible compromise by citing the use of “metrics” in making the judgment about whether the border has been secured. That suggests eventual immigration reform legislation could set clearly defined quantifiable and measurable goals for border security, leaving the commission to simply “check the box” as requirements were met — or not.

Example of such “metrics” can be found in the 2007 immigration bill that laid out certain numerical goals that have mostly been attained over the past six years: There are now 18,5000 Border Patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexico border; 10 drones patrol the skies; and 300 camera towers have improved surveillance. (The administration has built only 651 miles of border fence out of a requested 670 miles.)

The Gang of Eight’s framework includes a commitment to further increase the number of agents and drones, and a pledge to equip the Border Patrol “with the latest technology, infrastructure, and personnel needed to prevent, detect, and apprehend every unauthorized entrant.”

While Congress and the White House await more details from the Gang of Eight, Republicans and Democrats insist they want to remove politics from the decision about border security, at least as much as possible.

“Take it out of the hands of politicians,” Salmon told POLITICO. “You don’t let the fox guard the henhouse.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Long Border, Endless Struggle

New York Times
March 2, 2013
by Damien Cave

PENITAS, Tex. — The border fence behind Manuel Zamora’s home suggests strength and protection, its steel poles perfectly aligned just beyond the winding Rio Grande. But every night, the crossers come. After dark and at sunup, too, dozens of immigrants scale the wall or walk around it, their arrival announced by the angry yelps of backyard dogs.

“Look,” Mr. Zamora said early one recent morning, “here they come now.” He pointed toward his neighbor’s yard, where a young man in a dark sweatshirt and white sneakers sprinted toward the road, his breath visible in the winter dawn. Three others followed, rushing into a white sedan that arrived at the exact moment their feet hit the pavement.
“I don’t know how the government can stop it,” Mr. Zamora said, watching the car drive away. “It’s impossible to stop the traffic. You definitely can’t stop it with laws or walls.”
The challenge has tied Congress in knots for decades, and as lawmakers in Washington pursue a sweeping overhaul of immigration, the country is once again debating what to do about border security.
A bipartisan group of senators has agreed in principle to lay out a path to American citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally, but only after quantifiable progress is made on border security, raising thorny questions: What does a secure border mean exactly? How should it be measured? And what expectations are reasonable given the cost, the inherent challenges of the terrain and the flood of traffic crossing legally each year in the name of tourism and trade?
Some Republicans argue that the southern border remains dangerously porous and inadequately defended by the federal government. Obama administration officials, insisting there is no reason for delaying plans to move millions of people toward citizenship, counter that the border is already safer and more secure than ever. They say record increases in drug seizures, staffing and technology have greatly suppressed illegal traffic, driving down border apprehensions to around 365,000 in 2012, a decline of 78 percent since 2000.
Indeed, by every indicator, illegal migration into the United States has fallen tremendously — in part because of stricter immigration enforcement — and has held steady at lower levels for several years.
But all camps leave a lot out of the discussion. Visits to more than a half-dozen border locations over the past two years show that the levels of control vary significantly along the line in ways that Congress and the White House have yet to fully acknowledge.
Many areas that used to be popular crossing points have experienced undeniable improvements. Migrant shelters across from El Paso are now often empty. A generation after San Diego was overrun with thousands of immigrants openly rushing into the city every day, experts, Border Patrol agents and deportees in Tijuana, Mexico, all say that the chances of reaching Southern California are remote, with odds of success at 1 in 10, or worse.
Other sections of the border have seen less progress. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, crossings by the dozen still occur regularly, with relative ease, despite noticeable increases in the Border Patrol’s capabilities. The governmentwide spending cuts that went into effect on Friday could lead to even greater vulnerability.
And even before the budget battles, politics undermined effectiveness. Population centers like San Diego have held on to more resources; there are 80 Border Patrol pilots in the San Diego sector and only 15 in the Rio Grande Valley, where there is more migrant traffic — a sign of inefficiency that the Obama administration glosses over with national staffing figures.
With a similar degree of omission, Republicans demanding more fencing rarely mention that here, along hundreds of miles of a twisting river border with farms and parks on its edge, such an approach would mean seizing private property, damaging the environment and spending billions.
It is increasingly clear to those who live along the boundary with Mexico — or who try to protect it — that there is no such thing as a completely secure border, just as there are no cities without crime. Even in areas with towering walls and drones or helicopters overhead, border security can be breached.
The international divide is not a line or a series of doors to be locked and guarded, they argue. It is more like a 2,000-mile shoreline with ever-changing currents of migration, legitimate trade and smuggler tactics. The challenge evolves season to season. In Texas, where the border moves with the flooding of the Rio Grande, smugglers have started using fake Halliburton trucks to drive through areas where the company services oil fields. In San Diego, a few hundred migrants a year now arrive by boat, while the imposing fences that cost $16 million per mile are regularly overcome with ladders rented out for $35 a climb.
“The U.S. border with Mexico is better controlled than at any time in our history,” said Robert C. Bonner, who served under President George W. Bush as the commissioner of the United States Customs and Border Protection. But, he said, there is a lack of understanding among policy makers and the public about the challenge. “The terrain can be quite different depending on what part of the border you are talking about, and there are different ways, different tactics really, that need to be brought into play,” he said. “And this requires almost mile-by-mile analysis.”
Crossing Points
Suly Ochoa, 56, a home health care aide whose peach-color home sits along the border wall in Granjeno, Tex., says that what she wants from the border policy is simple, “It needs to be smarter.”
Like many of her neighbors in this town of 303, which was founded on Spanish land grants in 1767, she and her family have seen immigrants crossing through the area’s mesquite trees and tall grass for decades.
They have often helped the most desperate, calling ambulances for children or pregnant women. But residents have become increasingly concerned about security, as Mexican drug gangs seized the business of moving people and narcotics. Crime in the larger area of McAllen, Tex., while low, now occasionally includes what appear to be targeted killings.
Ms. Ochoa, a no-nonsense woman who grew up here, said she and many others in Granjeno had hoped the $20 million border wall — a 1.7-mile stretch of concrete and dirt, rising 18 feet — would help them feel safer. Now, a few years after completion, it looks to her more like a waste. “It’s not working at all,” she said, standing near the wall. “To me, it’s money down the drain.”
Part of the problem is that the fences and walls cover a limited area here in the Rio Grande Valley sector — just under 54 miles staking out a relatively straight boundary near the 316 curving miles of river border. And even within the fenced area, because of the riverfront farms and parks, there are several gated openings. The road in front of Ms. Ochoa’s house leads over the wall (which also serves as a levee), giving the authorities and smugglers access to the Rio Grande.
Border Patrol officials say that, even with the breaks, the barriers help by funneling illicit traffic into areas where crossers can be more easily caught. But residents say the system often fails. Ms. Ochoa says she sees drug loads at least once a week — usually large pickup trucks with bales of marijuana in the back barely covered with a tarp. Immigrant crossings occur almost every night, usually in groups of 10 to 20 people rushing by, sounding to many like stampeding horses.
One of Ms. Ochoa’s neighbors, Gloria Garza, 56, says she sleeps with the television on to drown out the noise. “You feel like they’re invading your privacy,” she said. “It’s not that you have anything against them. It’s just a question of who’s in the bunch.”
Border Patrol officials emphasize they are doing more than ever. In the 1990s, agents here recall, they did not have a budget to keep their gas tanks full. Now staffing levels in the sector have more than tripled, to about 2,500 agents. Additional intelligence comes from drones and helicopters, along with cameras set up by the state to track wildlife.
The Border Patrol has also received help from the National Guard and about 100 members of a Border Patrol mobile response team that was created a few years ago to move along with smuggling patterns.
In many ways, the dynamic response reflects a broader evolution in border policing. In the 1990s and after 2006, when Congress set aside $2 billion to build border fences, the approach focused on static technology. San Diego was the model, with its three layers of fence and cameras atop poles 85 feet tall. But immigrants soon adapted and crossed elsewhere. So, as migration moved to Arizona and then to Texas, officials began to focus on mobility. Rosendo Hinojosa, the chief of the Rio Grande Valley sector of the Border Patrol, says he now wishes he could move the permanent cameras, which were set up east of McAllen in 2001, to busier areas.
A calm, commanding man built like an offensive lineman, he praised residents for getting more involved, noting that law enforcement now regularly receives tips about stash houses where immigrants are kept before moving farther north. But during a flight over his area in a small plane, the dizzying challenge of border security twisted and turned with the Rio Grande.
Chief Hinojosa pointed to several spots that were impossible to fence and hard to defend. Flying west from McAllen, he pointed to sugar cane fields just a few feet from the river — giving immigrants an immediate place to hide — and to a sharp riverbend near where Ms. Ochoa lives, noting it is where drugs and people often come ashore because of boat ramps easily reachable by car. Over Mr. Zamora’s small blue house, Chief Hinojosa highlighted the proximity to major roads. “If we don’t have a persistent presence there, then they’re across in 30 seconds and on a highway,” he said. (When this reporter saw the four men cross, it was just minutes after a Border Patrol shift change.)
Mr. Bonner, the former customs commissioner, whose career has included stints as a judge and the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the best way to measure border security involved comparing the number of people who are caught with those who crossed successfully. The senators proposing an immigration overhaul might also welcome the clarity of such a statistic, given that they have not yet agreed upon how to measure border security.
But that figure may be impossible to know. Though the Border Patrol tracks detected migrants who got away, and those who turned back to Mexico or were apprehended, the agency’s nine sectors use different procedures for classifying such occurrences, a flaw the Government Accountability Office identified in a December report.
The numbers are useful for showing trends. The Yuma sector in Arizona, for instance, has seen the biggest improvement: in 2011, only 6 percent of migrants managed to get away from border agents after being detected, down from 36 percent in 2006. The rest either turned back toward Mexico or were caught. The Rio Grande Valley sector has also seen progress, with 29 percent getting away in 2011, down from 44 percent in 2006, though that is still poor by national standards. Only the Big Bend sector, east of El Paso, which is more isolated and sees far less traffic, had a higher rate of getaways.
Even so, the statistics are woefully incomplete because the Border Patrol agents count only the immigrants they detect, not the countless others who cross without anyone noticing.
The four men crossing by Mr. Zamora’s home were not part of the tally. Nor is there a count of those who have successfully used stolen documents, mingling in with the 350 million people who legally cross the border every year. Nor, officials acknowledge, can they keep up with all the new ways smugglers manage to avoid detection. In Texas, it is not just Halliburton trucks that they mock up. They have also impersonated shipping companies, including FedEx.
Rising Costs and Risks
Criminal organizations dominate Reynosa, the Mexican city across the border from McAllen , and they have made smuggling along this section of the border a sophisticated monopoly. The Gulf Cartel controls access to the river (called the Río Bravo in Mexico) and will beat or kill anyone who tries to cross without paying.
“Over there, they respect your life,” said a Honduran man at a migrant shelter in Reynosa, referring to the United States. “On this side, they don’t.”
He and several other men said they knew it was possible to get across, though, if they paid $2,500. The cost to be guided across has gone up significantly over the past decade, according to surveys and Border Patrol officials, who say this shows they are making the journey more difficult. But the prices (around $7,000 for the trip from Central America, with $4,000 up front) are still being paid, often by relatives in the United States. And even apprehensions and seizures do not always amount to clear victories.
On weekends, smugglers often rush the border from several points, agents and immigrants said, which means more drugs and immigrants are caught — and more get through. Smugglers have also become masters of decoys and delays. Ms. Ochoa said she had seen smaller cars pulled over, followed by large trucks that slip by while the authorities are tied up.
Similarly, the night after Chief Hinojosa highlighted the sector’s hot spots, dozens of agents spent several hours tracking a group of migrants who had crossed the river between Ms. Ochoa’s and Mr. Zamora’s small towns. The migrants had tripped a ground sensor, then a drone and a helicopter — equipped with heat-detecting cameras — confirmed that there were people making their way north through the brush in the flood plain. Slowly, the teams moved in, on horses, in trucks and with A.T.V.’s.
It was an impressive display that yielded a mixed result. A handful of officers walked three men up from the brush, along with two teenage boys and a tearful young woman with a pink cellphone. All but one came from Central America and would soon be sent back.
But that was just part of the group. Eight others had gotten away, the agents said, along with the two guides, who appeared to have fled back across the river into Mexico.
Less than an hour earlier, it was much the same with a shipment of drugs. Two men carrying backpacks ran through a gap in the border fence. The cocaine they were carrying ended up seized, but the smugglers escaped. They had thrown down homemade spikes — nails welded together to pop the tires of Border Patrol trucks — and that was all they needed. Despite dozens of agents in the area, a fence and surveillance overhead, they were able to slip away by blending into McAllen.
“If they weren’t getting in,” said one border official who works at ports of entry, “they wouldn’t be trying.”
The next morning, Mr. Zamora saw the four migrants cross in front of him. Chief Hinojosa said border crossers are often caught deeper into Texas, at the checkpoint heading out of the valley.
But Mr. Zamora seemed ambivalent, going back and forth between annoyance and resignation. Leaning on a steel pole for support, his 77 years looking more like 88, he said that as long as immigrants could find work — as long as the incentive system far from the border stayed the same — people would come. He knew it because it was his own experience. Though legal now, as a young boy more than 60 years ago, he swam across the same river to pursue the American dream.