The Monitor's View

Immigration reform and border security: Obama's standards

Immigration reform depends on sustainable, provable security along the southern border. But Obama, in a speech in El Paso today, hopes to change the meaning of security.

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The porous nature of America’s borders has long worked against a deal over what to do with 11 million people already in the United States violating immigration law. Granting them legal status would be convenient, even moral in some family cases. But then, after giving this break to lawbreakers, more foreign migrants would slip in, with hopes of me-too leniency. That was exactly the case after a 1986 amnesty.

But now President Obama foresees a possible end to this cycle of migrant sin-and-forgiveness.

In a speech today in El Paso, Texas, he suggested that the border with Mexico is secure enough for Congress to pass immigration reform. For those in the US illegally, that would mean a “pathway to citizenship,” as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano calls it. And the flow of new migrants could be contained by the tighter border security, the president implied.

Indeed, since 2006, when Congress got serious about border enforcement, all manner of fences, unmanned aircraft, and high-tech sensors, as well as thousands of additional patrol agents have been put in place. A welcomed bipartisan consensus has developed around securing the border before tackling tougher immigration issues.

Alas, despite the billions already spent, the 2,000-mile southern border is not secure. The General Accountability Office (GAO), the chief watchdog agency for Congress, has found less than half of it to be under operational control. With that news, and with Mr. Obama seeking Hispanic votes for his 2012 reelection, the president had decided to reframe the meaning of border security.

On May 4, Ms. Napolitano announced an effort to create a “border security index” by next year that would “comprehensively and systematically” measure the effects of law enforcement along the border with Mexico.

“How we define success at the border is critical to how we move forward,” she said.

She declared the term “operational control” to be archaic while seeking to go beyond statistics such as apprehensions of illegal aliens or drug and cash seizures. Such statistics can fluctuate, depending on the state of the US economy as a magnet for border crossers (down, with high US joblessness) or the spillover of Mexico’s violent drug wars (up).

The proposed new metrics would tally up the quality of life along the border, such as crime levels, calls from hospitals to report illegal aliens, impacts on property values, and other economic measures.

The problem with such benchmarks is that they might deflect attention from adding resources to enforcement. And given the political impetus to win the Hispanic vote, it’s not at all clear whether the Obama administration will sustain enforcement efforts.

Sustainability of border security has yet to be proved. At present, there are only about two agents per mile (per shift) along the southern border.

Any further efforts must be coupled with catching “overstayers,” the 40 percent of illegal immigrants who obtained a temporary visa but remain undiscovered by authorities.

Obama has been too overtly political about immigration, seeking to appease one ethnic group (Latinos) rather than uniting the country behind adequate enforcement of immigration laws. This sort of ethnic-based policymaking by the chief law enforcement officer only adds to the country’s sense of mass lawbreaking by 3 percent of the population.

While Obama has also increased deportations of illegal immigrants (mainly those who commit other crimes), and cracked down on employers who hire them, the main task of a secure border has yet to show effective results and, most of all, to be long term. The GAO’s benchmarks should remain the standard.

A rush to grant citizenship now, based on the president’s election strategy and incomplete border protections, would risk repeating mistakes of the past.

A near end of unlawful entries can be achieved, while also increasing legal immigration. A nation that can find and hunt down Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan can surely find a way to secure its own border.

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