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Setting the record straight on immigration and border enforcement

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Setting the record straight on immigration and border enforcement

  • A Border Patrol inspection station in Arizona.
    Fifth World Art/FlickrA Border Patrol inspection station in Arizona.

One of the most common refrains voiced by opponents of immigration reform is that it must wait until the federal government has secured our border with Mexico and enforced the nation’s current immigration laws. Ten years ago those claims carried some force. At the time, there had been large-scale undocumented migration for a sustained period, the border was relatively porous, and immigration enforcement in the country was less organized than it could have been. Ten years later, however, the facts on the ground have changed dramatically.

The need to do more to control the border became a basic building block of the 2006 and 2007 congressional attempts to pass what became known as comprehensive immigration reform. Though these bills did not become law, border security itself has grown exponentially since. Through administration policy, congressional appropriations, and passage of discrete enforcement legislation such as the Secure Fence Act, the federal government has deployed massive enforcement resources at the border and in the interior. The impacts have been profound:

  • Net undocumented migration is now at or below zero.
  • The number of people apprehended crossing the border has decreased, even as border agents now patrol every single mile of the border every day and in many places have 100 percent eyes on the border—meaning that they can view nearly all attempts to cross the border in real time.
  • Annual deportations have reached historic levels.
  • There are more “boots on the ground” at the border than there have ever been in history.

The fact of the matter is that the border is more secure now than it has ever been. And yet some members of Congress continue to insist that the border is unsafe, and as such, that they will hold immigration reform hostage until we have secured the border. With more than $17 billion spent each year on immigration and border enforcement, this is not only a misguided approach but an expensive one as well.

To combat a lack of understanding, this infographic attempts to shine a light on the current state of immigration and border enforcement. Here we compare the current state of the border with border-security benchmarks included in both the 2006 and 2007 Senate bills. Those benchmarks have now been met, and in most cases surpassed, by the investment of unprecedented resources in border security efforts.


The safety and security of our border with Mexico means that it is time to move beyond the paradigm of immigration reform as first and foremost an enforcement strategy, as it was in 2006 and 2007. Not surprisingly, public opinion has shifted in line with the massive changes at the border. While in 2006 and 2007 a majority of Americans believed that “halting [the] flow of immigrants” to the United States should be the top priority of immigration policy, these beliefs have since flipped. Now, when asked the same question, 55 percent of Americans believe that the United States should first and foremost “deal with illegal immigrants already in the U.S.” Likewise, in national exit polling from Election Day, a full 65 percent of Americans argued that undocumented immigrants should be “offered a chance to apply for legal status.”

Instead of a security-first paradigm, the new thinking on immigration reform should instead embrace the potential gains from immigration reform, particularly the social and economic benefits. Indeed, passage of comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship would add $1.5 trillion to cumulative U.S. gross domestic product over the next decade, while passage of the DREAM Act, which offers a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants, would add $329 billion to the economy by 2030. Starting immigration reform with anything but a pathway to citizenship would run counter to the facts on the ground, counter to public opinion, and counter to plain, old-fashioned common sense.

This article was published by the Center for American Progress.

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