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First step toward immigration reform: Define ‘secure border’

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First step toward immigration reform: Define ‘secure border’

  • The border fence where Mexico, New Mexico and Texas meet, photographed from south of the border.
    d∂wn/FlickrThe border fence where Mexico, New Mexico and Texas meet, photographed from south of the border.

How "secure" is secure when discussing the U.S.-Mexico border?

It is that very definition – or rather, lack thereof – that is among the top sticking points thwarting efforts to resolve the congressional stalemate on immigration reform.

The Senate's bipartisan version is a comprehensive package for both improved border protections and a pathway to citizenship. House Republican leaders, meanwhile, prefer a piecemeal approach that is focused first and foremost on enhanced enforcement including "a secure border."

But as noted in "Defining Border Security in Immigration Reform," a new report by the Morrison Institute Latino Public Policy Center at Arizona State University, majorities in Congress must commit to border-security standards that are reasonable and attainable before any consensus or comprise is reached.

"Political leaders need to engage in the kind of precise discussion about when or how exactly the border can be considered sufficiently 'secure,' which has not been determined as of yet," according to the report by policy analyst Mike Slaven.

The briefing examines apprehensions of undocumented crossers over the years in Arizona and elsewhere, as well as accepted standards and metrics in determining the "effectiveness rate" related to border security.

The Senate bill establishes a goal of a 90 percent effectiveness rate (the number of apprehensions plus the number of "turnbacks," divided by the total number of attempted crossing).

As the report illustrates, the southwestern border's effectiveness rate has steadily improved from fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2011, from 69.11 percent to 83.71 percent, respectively. (In Arizona during that time frame, the Yuma sector's effectiveness rate improved from 63.81 percent to 93.74 percent, and the Tucson sector from 66.93 percent to 86.87 percent.)

The "secure the border first" mantra by hard-line conservatives helped scuttle Congress' last major immigration reform push in 2007. But that stance apparently won't cut it this time around, with a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll from July 17-21 showing that 59 percent of voters would see such a litmus test as merely an excuse to block reform efforts.

This likely is not the only chance for real immigration reform, but it may well be the best chance for a long time. Any delay toward the 2014 elections shifts Congress' motivational balance from "pragmatic solution" to "political problem" – especially for the House, with all 435 seats on the ballot.

Perhaps a good starting place for Congress today is acknowledgement that the U.S.-Mexico border is the most secure it has been in the more than four decades, when a more porous border was considered acceptable.

That fact is not in question. The big question is, realistically speaking, how "secure" is "secure enough?"

Concisely defining a "secure border" is the lynchpin to any comprehensive legislation that would lead to a pathway to citizenship or legal residency for the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Otherwise there are just too many vague notions floating about for any actual immigration reform to take firm shape, and the only thing secure will be continuation of a broken system and all the consequences that come with it.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

The director of communications for the Morrison Institute of Public Policy at ASU, Garcia is a longtime, award-winning journalist whose experience as a top editor, columnist and reporter included positions at The Arizona Republic, The Daily Times, Tucson Citizen, USA Today and The Associated Press.

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