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McSally: 'Hard to believe' DHS apprehension numbers

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McSally: 'Hard to believe' DHS apprehension numbers

  • Ariz. Rep. Martha McSally listens as Rep. Michael McCaul from Texas speaks to reporters during a a congressional junket along the border west of Naco in 2015. McSally led nearly two dozen congressional members on the exploration of the border, pushing for an additional to a Republican bill that would require Border Patrol to redeploy agents near the border.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comAriz. Rep. Martha McSally listens as Rep. Michael McCaul from Texas speaks to reporters during a a congressional junket along the border west of Naco in 2015. McSally led nearly two dozen congressional members on the exploration of the border, pushing for an additional to a Republican bill that would require Border Patrol to redeploy agents near the border.

On her first day as chair of a House homeland-security subcommittee Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Martha McSally questioned federal statistics on the effectiveness of the U.S. Border Patrol along the southern border, calling the numbers "hard to believe." 

On February 9, the Department of Homeland Security released its annual report showing that Customs and Border Protection agents and officers were 81 percent effective in apprehending those who attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, counting not only those arrested by agents, but also those who ran back across the border or disappeared into the desert. 

During her opening statement, McSally challenged that number, arguing that the effectiveness rate included "inaccurate measures of the state of security on the border." 

The reported rate for effectively taking people into custody "includes unaccompanied children and families from countries other than Mexico, who turn themselves in, inflating the number. It also fails to take into account the number the Border Patrol never sees," McSally said. 

Within a month of winning her contentious House seat, McSally moved to make border security a major part of her term. 

In January 2015, McSally brought nearly two dozen Congressional members to tour Arizona rancher John Ladd's 14,000 acre property that runs along part of the U.S.-Mexico border, and used the opportunity to add a provision to a Republican-sponsored border security bill directing DHS to send agents to "patrol as close to the physical land border as possible." The provision earned a harsh response from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who called the idea "unworkable." 

It is impossible to assess the percentage of people being stopped by Border Patrol, McSally said. Counting apprehensions doesn't work because there is no method to estimate the number of people who were successful in crossing the border. 

"The best analytical research, using all available data, on interdiction effectiveness puts the true probability of apprehension much closer to 50 percent," McSally said. 

This is according to a report published two weeks ago by the Congressional Research Service, which said that DHS has used several metrics over the years to estimate the number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. 

In 2005, Homeland Security used a measure called "operational control" and calculated the number of border miles where agents were able to detect, identify, respond and interdict cross-border activity. In 2010, the agency retired operational control as a metric, and began using migrant apprehensions as an interim measure, said Carla Argueta, an immigration policy analyst. 

The agency's ability to declare operational control, or as McSally called it, "situational awareness," came into question in 2013 when use of a sophisticated radar mounted on Predator drones operated by CBP along the border showed that the number of "gotaways"— people who crossed the border, but were not apprehended by agents—was higher than previously estimated by the agency. 

The new data raised questions about the agency's ability to accurately evaluate the number of crossings, and cast the agency's hold on remote border zones into doubt.

During one week in January, the Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar, or VADER, detected 355 people on foot north of the Arizona-Mexico border. Border Patrol agents caught 125 of those, while an additional 141 people evaded apprehension and 87 retreated into Mexico. Two remained unaccounted for. 

The apprehension rate shown by VADER was around 35 percent, highlighting the potential problems in the Border Patrol's analysis. 

DHS has responded by saying that it uses a "risk-based strategy" designed to send agents, and technology to new positions in an effort by border as officials identify shifts along the border, but this can allow parts of the border to fall beyond what this measure of "situational awareness," which includes not only spotting border crossers, but being able to intercept people in the United States. 

Ronald Vitiello, acting chief of the Border Patrol, testified to the House Committee that the agency has a "systematic way of recording" illegal entries that collects apprehensions, turn backs and "gotaways." 

"There are placed where we can see entries in real time," Vitiello said. This includes fixed towers and sensors mounted to trucks, as well as agents own observations, he said. 

"They're at the line and they see people come across, so all that activity is recorded," Vitiello said, also noted that agents also considered evidence left by people as they crossed into the United States. "I can't say that this is a perfect endeavor, because it's done by human beings, but what I can say is we have a systematic protocol that allows agents to assess zone by zone, line by line at the border," he said. 

McSally dismissed this effort, and pushed Vitiello to give a percentage, or number of miles, that the agency knew it could detect an illegal crossing. 

"Of the 1,954 miles of the southern border, can you give us a sense of what percentage or what number of miles you feel you have situational awareness to the point that if something comes across you know it," McSally asked. "You may not be able to intercept it, but you know it." 

"About 56 percent of the border is deployed in a way that agents and technology can see activity in real time," Vitiello said. 

This number is slightly lower than a figure published by the agency in 2010, when it said that it had operational control of 57 percent of the Southwest border. 

The agency has promised to increase its situational awareness, rapidly expanding a clutch of sensors and fixed towers, including the construction of 20 Integrated Fixed Towers that bristle with sensors in the Arizona desert, and the deployment of 70 towers topped with video cameras in Texas. 

The agency also said that it would spend $44 million to purchase trucks that can carry video cameras and radars, and another $11 million for the National Border Geo-Intelligence Strategy, which will "inform daily decisions on deployments of personnel and equipment" especially in Texas and New Mexico, said Jeh Johnson in 2015. 

Along with Vitiello, Rebecca Gambler of the U.S. Government Accountability Office testified that Customs and Border Protection needed to improve its ability to measure border-security efforts by establishing milestones and timeframes. 

Since 2010, the government watchdog has repeatedly noted gaps in the agency's ability to analyze its own efforts, criticizing the agency's first attempt to build a border surveillance system as well as the agency's operation of Predator drones. 

"We must move beyond the political rhetoric that on one hand says that the border is out of control, while the other says it is more secure than ever and everything is fine," said McSally. "But the only way to do that is by being transparent when it comes to security on the border." 

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