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Experts: Border spending 'a shot in the dark' without better data

WASHINGTON – The Department of Homeland Security needs to find a better way to measure the success of border security policy or else spending on the issue is little more than “a shot in the dark,” a panel of experts said Monday.

A report by the Bipartisan Policy Center also said that while the department already collects much of the data necessary to evaluate its effectiveness, that data is not consistently analyzed and not readily available for public review.

The center organized the panel where former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the data that is being collected is often focused on the wrong things, like numbers of border patrol agents or miles of border fence.

Such “brute force” statistics do little to show how successful U.S. immigration policy and border security are at slowing the flow of illegal immigration, he said.

“What is the value of a fence?” Chertoff asked. “A fence doesn’t keep people out forever. It only slows them up. A fence is not always successful.”

Instead of measuring how it patrols the border, the department needs to be tracking things like the total number of unauthorized entries, the number of visa overstays and the probability of being stopped at the border.

“One of the critical issues, if we’re going to ultimately tackle immigration reform, is to get agreement upon a disciplined, reasonable and internally consistent set of measurements that we can use to determine whether or not we are succeeding,” Chertoff said.

Without that, Congress has no way of knowing whether spending on border security is doing the job, said Bryan Roberts, author of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s report, Measuring the Metrics.

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“Fencing has been used as an example. The government has been required to spend several billion dollars on building fencing, and we actually have no idea what its real impact is,” Roberts said.

The federal government already tracks a significant amount of data and DHS has claimed success in its border security efforts based on that data. But one panelist said those claims – and that data – need to be analyzed by a third party.

“Many members (of Congress) want to trust the metrics that the department will put out and say these are accurate, valid measures of what’s going on at the border,” said Paul Anstine, staff director for the House Homeland Security subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, who was on the panel. “The problem is you can’t have DHS grading their own papers.”

“It’s like the old adage, ‘trust, but verify,’” Anstine said.

The Bipartisan Policy Center report said federal agencies have never published a consistent set of outcome measurements despite collecting data since 1980.

But U.S. Border Patrol Chief Michael Fischer said the department is working to make its numbers more transparent.

“The intent all along has been for us to show everything that we’re collecting and have a broader discussion of what is valuable and what is not valuable,” Fischer told the panel.

Publishing the numbers and working to find a way to measure effectiveness is an important first step to immigration reform, panelists said.

“The metrics and published metrics are very important in establishing credibility,” Chertoff said. “And I think credibility is now the biggest obstacle to getting this done.”

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1 comment on this story

Apr 14, 2015, 9:46 pm
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There are those of us who could, and would, take care of the mountain spotters who are guiding both the drug and human smugglers past the Border Patrol.

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Kristen Hwang/Cronkite News

Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the U.S. needs 'a disciplined, reasonable and internally consistent set of measurements' to determine if border policies are succeeding or not.