'Border security' red herring undermines real progress
Opponents of comprehensive immigration reform argue that we need a fully secure border before we can systemically overhaul our immigration laws. Ironically, the “border security first” mantra is actually thwarting progress on border security.
The argument to delay broader immigration reforms until the border is secure relies on the following dubious assumptions:
The evidence belies each of these points, and this brief examines them in turn. It also shows—as the Center for American Progress has done before—that the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, met and exceeded stringent enforcement benchmarks that “border security first” supporters laid out in legislation that failed to pass Congress in 2007.
It is past time to put aside this tired expression and start working on comprehensive solutions to fix the system.
'Total control' is impossible
Some grandstanding lawmakers suggest that nothing short of “total control of our southern border, our northern border, and our natural ports of entry” will suffice to declare our borders secure. But no serious expert believes it is possible to seal our borders.
The “operational control” definition Congress adopted in 2006 sets the bar at an unattainable level: “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband.” Yet even the Border Patrol’s current interpretation of this unrealistic congressional operational control standard does not contemplate an impermeable wall. The Border Patrol defines it as the ability to detect, identify, classify, and then respond to and resolve illegal entries along our U.S. borders.” But as Homeland Security Secretary ano explains, operational control is a “very narrow term of art” that “does not reflect the infrastructure and technology and all the other things that happen at the border.”
Border security is much more than creating barriers. It entails a host of overlapping controls that help regulate the flows of goods and people in an orderly manner wJanet Napolithile preventing those who mean to harm us from entering. Those controls include a combination of intelligence tools, physical barriers, manpower, and virtual detection capabilities at and between ports of entry. But they also include establishing realistic regulatory channels that can funnel legitimate entrants into the legal system and restoring the rule of law in our labor market by dealing with the current undocumented population.
Evaluating “border security,” therefore, cannot and should not be measured against a standard of total control. Not even the Berlin Wall, with its constant patrolling, machine gun towers, relatively small length, and urban location could prevent escapes. Border security and operational control should be measured in terms of risk management. The question should be: Have we implemented the right set of policies and deployed the right set of tools to minimize risk and maximize control in a constantly changing environment with evolving challenges?
As former Secretary Michael Chertoff said recently: “You can, depending where you are on the border, use a series of tools in order to minimize the flow. Is it going to be an absolute seal? No. But will it, again, manage the risk in conjunction with these other tools? Yes.”
Moreover, Chertoff, Tom Ridge, and Janet Napolitano—the only three people to have served as secretary of homeland security since the department was created—all concluded at a recent event honoring the eighth anniversary of the Homeland Security Department’s creation that extraordinary work has been done in strengthening the border but that an airtight border is unachievable and lasting and effective border security requires an overhaul of our immigration system.
Ridge observed that: “At some point in time, you’ve got to say to yourself, we’re not sending 12 million people home. Now, let’s get over it … let’s just figure out a way to legitimize their status, create a new system. And I think that will add more to border security than any number of fences we can put across the southern border.”
While we continue to strive for better control of our borders we can no longer let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s time to take the next step in securing our border: meaningfully reforming our immigration laws.
The public is hungry for a solution
Americans are undeniably frustrated with illegal immigration. Everyone wants a secure border. But Americans are also realistic, and they are calling for tough, pragmatic solutions, not more empty platitudes such as “border security first.”
The signs of bipartisan pragmatism on this issue are everywhere except the conservative corridors of Congress. For years now, virtually every poll shows that strong majorities of Americans of every political stripe support tough border security, a crackdown on unlawful employers, and requiring undocumented immigrants to register, pass background checks, pay taxes, and earn citizenship.
Tellingly, both strengthening the border and dealing with the current population receives significantly higher support than doing only one or the other. Last February, a poll in conservative Idaho highlighted that the state’s residents think illegal immigration is a problem and that they support strong state enforcement legislation. But the highest level of support (73 percent) was for a program enabling undocumented immigrants to permanently remain in the United States.
Utah, one of the most conservative states in the country, is another recent case in point. As it grappled with legislation to address illegal immigration it became clear that Arizona’s enforcement-only approach was insufficient. Utah’s Republican state legislature eventually passed a tough package of enforcement measures on March 15—overly harsh and misguided in our view—but they also created a program to bring the state’s undocumented residents into the legal fold. The legislation is deeply flawed on a variety of fronts, and ultimately only Congress can solve these problems. But it reinforced the need for a practical solution over an ideological statement.
We’ve had nearly a year to reflect on Arizona’s heavy-handed enforcement approach to immigration, and cooler heads have prevailed. Conservatives now look to move in a more constructive direction. Two highly conservative states, Idaho and Utah, are signaling strong support for a more pragmatic approach, echoing consistent public opinion research on the issue over the last four years.
Obama’s enforcement efforts exceed his Republican predecessor’s
The final argument the “border security first” crowd raises is that President Obama’s Department of Homeland Security demonstrates a lack of commitment to immigration and border enforcement that undermines public confidence in any changes to immigration law. The numbers tell a different story.
The Obama administration deported 392,862 people during fiscal year 2010—nearly half of these deportees were convicted of a crime. Over the last two years they have deported more than 779,000 people, which is an 18 percent increase from President George W. Bush’s last two fiscal years in office.
Not only that, but the administration continues to engage state and local law enforcement officers by aggressively deploying a number of controversial programs such as the 287(g) and Secure Communities initiatives, which aim to give specific immigration enforcement functions to nonfederal agents. Secure Communities expanded from 14 jurisdictions in 2008 to over 1,000 today.
What’s more, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, ramped up its workforce compliance efforts to unprecedented levels. ICE charged 180 employers with criminal violations related to unlawful hiring in FY 2010 and conducted more than 2,200 audits. Those audits resulted in nearly $43 million in penalties.
Layered on top of a fundamentally broken system, we believe many of these enforcement strategies need thorough audits, regular adjustment, and careful monitoring. Unfortunately, too often the execution of these efforts is counterproductive and inflicts unnecessary harm and suffering. Despite admirable attempts to prioritize the focus on serious threats, hundreds of thousands of hard-working families have been torn apart. The economic and humanitarian effects of these ruptures are severe. Nonetheless, these efforts and those sketched below belie the claim that this administration and this agency lack a deep commitment to immigration and border enforcement.
DHS is hitting and surpassing enforcement benchmarks
Many of these same “border security first” proponents argued four years ago that we could only implement reforms to our immigration laws after specific enforcement benchmarks were met. The 2007 reform legislation that contained the benchmarks failed in the Senate, but we demonstrate below that over the last four years the bill’s high goalposts were reached and exceeded.
Our borders are more fortified with infrastructure and personnel than ever before, and we now spend $17 billion a year on immigration and border enforcement. “A completely secure border is impossible on our land borders,” C. Stewart Verdery, former assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy at DHS, points out, “but the record is clear that the U.S. government has made great strides in gaining operational control of the southern border.”
Yet our system remains broken despite this massive surge of enforcement activity. More than 5 percent of our workforce is undocumented. Hundreds of thousands of individuals still enter the United States without authorization or overstay their visas. And our enforcement budget will continue to drain the nation’s coffers without appreciably improving the integrity of the system until Congress owns up to its responsibility and enacts fundamental reforms.
To put a fine point on this, we’ll review how the following benchmarks, which were included in the 2007 immigration reform bill, have been met.
Benchmark: Operational control of the Mexican border
The 2007 legislation directed the secretary of homeland security to establish and demonstrate operational control of the U.S.-Mexico land border, which includes the ability to monitor the border with available methods and technology. As noted above, operational control is an unrealistic standard that DHS thinks does not reflect the full range of border security activities.
In fact, Michael Fisher, the DHS border patrol chief, recently testified that the agency is actively “taking steps to replace this outdated measure with performance metrics that more accurately depict the state of border security.”
In the meantime, the following extraordinary efforts make clear the federal government’s sustained commitment to securing the border:
Benchmark: Staff enhancements for Border Patrol
The 2007 legislation directed the CBP’s Border Patrol to put in place 20,000 full-time agents reporting for duty. That mandate was met and exceeded:
Benchmark: Strong border barriers
The 2007 legislation directed DHS to install at least 300 miles of vehicle barriers, 370 miles of fencing, and 105 ground-based radar and camera towers along the U.S.-Mexico land border, as well as deploy four unmanned aerial vehicles and their supporting systems. The legislation wasn’t enacted, but virtually all of those objectives have been met:
Benchmark: An end to catch and release
The legislation directed DHS to detain all removable aliens apprehended illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border except as specifically mandated by federal or state law, or in humanitarian circumstances. It was also told to give ICE the resources to maintain this practice, including the resources necessary to detain up to 31,500 aliens per day annually.
These benchmarks have been met:
Benchmark: Workplace enforcement tools
DHS was directed to—and authorized to do so under the failed 2007 legislation— establish and use secure and effective identification tools to prevent unauthorized workers from obtaining employment in the United States. The legislation failed, but DHS still made significant progress expanding voluntary electronic employment verification and enhancing worksite enforcement efforts:
Time to move beyond “security first”
“Border security first” proponents are standing in the way of more substantial border security. They are blocking enactment of additional layers of control that would funnel migrants into a legal system and restore the rule of law by requiring undocumented immigrants to register, pay taxes, and earn status.
Blocking immigration reforms that are needed to actually accelerate and enhance border security efforts is the height of cynicism. It is high time that we stop enabling those who want to play politics with this issue and start supporting those who want to solve problems.
The administration’s commitment to border security and robust enforcement is indisputable. The American public’s desire for tough but realistic solutions is clear. Federal legislators can no longer reasonably hide behind their unpersuasive “border security first” calls. Large-scale systemic dysfunction will persist until Congress can muster the political courage to enact comprehensive immigration reforms.
This article was published by the Center for American Progress.