THE MAGAZINE

What’s Wrong with Border Security?

By Sherry Harowitz

As the U.S. Congress attempts to craft legislation to reform immigration laws, a consistent premise has been that this must be done in a way that does not reduce national security. Some in Congress have even stated that a secure border should be a prerequisite to any immigration reform.

There’s just one problem with that approach, according to former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard: “We’ve never defined what ‘secure the border’ means.”

Does it mean more border guards? Fewer apprehensions of illegals crossing over? Lower crime in U.S. towns on the border with Mexico? What benchmarks are relevant and meaningful? This issue was the topic of several recent congressional hearings and a separate discussion sponsored by the Immigration Policy Center, at which Goddard spoke.

At one congressional hearing titled “What Would a Secure Border Look Like?” Marc Rosenblum, specialist in immigration policy at the Congressional Research Service, noted that it’s not easy to select metrics or to know how to analyze them meaningfully in this context. For example, he said, “we do not know if a decline in apprehensions is a good thing, because fewer people are attempting to enter, or a bad thing, because more of them are succeeding.” Yet that is a metric that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has turned to while it tries to find a risk-based measure that works better than the previous metric of “operational control.”

The Government Accountability Office testified at the hearing that in fiscal year (FY) 2011 alone, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection division (CBP) of the DHS reported spending $4 billion to secure the border with Mexico. And Rosenblum testified that “Congress has expanded spending on border fencing, infrastructure, and technology programs from $115 million in FY2006, to a high point of $1.2 billion in FY2008, and $400 million in FY2012.” Yet one study found that only 30 percent of the drop in illegal immigration was due to increased U.S. border enforcement, he said. Most of the change was simply a reflection of changing economics on both sides of the border.

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