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.