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.