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Is US-Mexico border secure enough? Immigration reform could hinge on answer.

What did the post-9/11 border patrol surge of manpower and equipment achieve? Understanding its successes and failures could be crucial to the new immigration reform effort.

By , Correspondent

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    US border patrol agent José Solis investigates cotton fibers found on a barbed-wire border fence in Lordsburg, N.M. He suspects they’re from a burlap sack filled with contraband tossed over the barrier by drug smugglers.
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Travelers on Interstate 19 don't need any "Welcome to Mexico" signs to know that the border is near.

Twenty-five miles north of the line, a giant white canopy stretches over the northbound lanes, with green-shirted border patrol agents and drug-sniffing dogs buzzing around the checkpoint. Farther south in Nogales, Ariz., green-and-white border patrol vehicles are as conspicuous as yellow cabs in New York, and stadium lights trained on the border fence dwarf the rustic Sonoran homes below.

Ten years ago, the permanent checkpoint, the stadium lights, and the ubiquity of those green-and-white cars would have seemed jarring. But since 9/11, America's southern border has changed. President George W. Bush's most famous surge might have been in Iraq, but along the US-Mexican border, he also presided over a doubling of manpower and a shift in the border patrol's mission to make it a tool in the war on terror.

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Now, as Washington considers immigration reform, the border patrol and its mission are again in the spotlight. Many Republicans say reform, without increased border security, is a nonstarter. But Mr. Bush's surge offers lessons about what can realistically be accomplished – and what tops an unfinished to-do list.

Statistical and anecdotal evidence show there has been progress in reining in illegal immigration, most agree. But there have been unintended consequences, such as the rise in human trafficking to avert the border buildup. Moreover, many stakeholders remain divided about whether the border needs even more attention, or whether the United States should shift its focus on immigration-enforcement efforts inward.

"While we have made enormous progress in improving border security, the job is not finished," says Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tighter border enforcement.

That sentiment is echoed by Republicans whose support could be crucial to immigration reform. During the first Senate hearing on the topic this year, GOP senators challenged the assertion by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that "our borders have, in fact, never been stronger."

Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas responded: "I do not believe the border is secure, and I still believe we have a long, long way to go."

Going forward, a central question in the immigration-reform debate will be what more can – and should – be done. In many ways, answering that question depends on understanding what has been done so far.

While the massive rise in illegal immigration throughout the 1980s and '90s brought some increases in manpower and technology to the Southwest border, 9/11 started a sea change.

In 2003, the size of the border patrol stood at 10,717 agents. In 2012, the number totaled 21,394, with 18,516 stationed along a Southwest border reinforced with state-of-the-art technology that includes ground sensors, hand-held thermal-imaging equipment, surveillance cameras, and predator drones. During that time, the border patrol budget increased from $1.4 billion to $3.5 billion, according to agency data.

Those increases have been supplemented by other initiatives. In 2006, Bush signed the Secure Fence Act, which authorized 700 miles of fencing – as well as infrastructure such as vehicle barriers, roads, and checkpoints – along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. The same year, the Bush administration endorsed plans for a "virtual fence" of surveillance equipment to run almost the entire length of the border.

The Secure Fence Act aimed to achieve "operational control" over the entire border, defining the phrase as "the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband."

That, experts say, was an unrealistic expectation. There will never be a secure border by that definition, says Donald Kerwin, executive director at the Center for Migration Studies, which defends migrants' rights.

Even the Berlin Wall failed by that measure, he notes. "At that point they were shooting at unauthorized crossers," he says. "Even on a heavily fortified, militarized 37-mile wall, people were crossing. To think that nobody will cross illegally over a 2,000-mile border is fanciful."

In 2010, that realization – together with rising costs and technological challenges – led the Obama administration to kill the virtual fence.

Signs of success

That doesn't mean the border surge was a failure, though.

Border patrol officials say a historic decline in total apprehensions nationwide – from a peak of 1.6 million in 2006 to 356,873 in 2012 – is a sign of success. As further proof that the border is under control, the agency touts its record of intercepting a massive amount of smuggled drugs, and offers FBI statistics showing that crime is lower in border areas than in some parts of the US interior.

"The high-speed chases, the rollovers, the chaos that comes with a border out of control, that is no longer the norm," said Manuel Padilla, acting chief of the border patrol's Tucson sector, at a recent meeting. "That is no longer there."

The soft US economy has been a significant contributor to the drop in illegal entries – fewer jobs attract fewer immigrants. But other experts agree that the security surge has played a role in bringing apprehensions down to levels last seen in the early 1970s.

"The investments were really significant, and they had an effect," says Thad Bingel, former chief of staff for Customs and Border Protection in the Bush administration and a founding partner of Command Consulting Group, a security consultancy in Washington, D.C.

"It's much more difficult to cross the border in Arizona or California or Texas today than it was in 2005, and your chances of getting caught are much higher," he adds.

But that progress has come at a cost, some say. Congress's response to the 9/11 attacks not only changed the size of the border patrol but also its purpose. In 2003, when the border patrol became part of the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS), its mission was expanded to prioritize capturing terrorists and weapons of terror at the border.

Bringing the agency under DHS brought cohesiveness to the border effort, Mr. Bingel says. But "it did change the mind-set, and it did change the focus and the tools that were applied."

Joe Dassaro, a former border patrol agent, says the move made the agency's mission diffuse. "The agency was receiving mixed signals," he recalls. Agents were being told, "your only mission is to apprehend terrorists."

Too much, too fast?

The sheer speed of the buildup also had negative consequences, Mr. Dassaro says. Agents were hired so quickly that training standards weakened. He became involved in his local union, and the more he studied the history of immigration policy, the more disillusioned he became about how it was being carried out. He left the agency in 2005.

In recent years, the border patrol has been under fire for excessive use of force, shootings involving agents, and corruption among its ranks. While those problems are "relatively few," says Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine, they could be an outgrowth of claims of discrimination in border communities. "People who look like they're from Latin America are much more likely to face the wrath of the border patrol," he says.

There have been signs of progress. In El Paso, Texas, the Border Network for Human Rights reached out to the border patrol after people felt they were targets "because of the way they looked and the way they dressed." Complaints dropped significantly.

"What we did here is considered a success because the community and the border patrol worked together," says Fernando Garcia, the group's executive director.

Rise of people-smuggling

The buildup also has changed how migrants cross the border. As the agency has made the trek north more difficult, more people have started crossing through remote regions of the desert and mountainous terrain. In Arizona alone, more than 2,400 people have died since 2000, according to Tucson human rights groups.

"The discussion of the deaths is not even included in border security, and it should be," says Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, an immigrants rights activist.

The tightening of the border has also empowered organized crime to branch into the increasingly lucrative business of people-smuggling.

"They take $1,000, $2,000, $3,000 a pop for each migrant that they smuggle into the country, often in hideously dangerous conditions," said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, in a teleconference.

Yesenia Mercado, who was deported through Nogales last month, says smugglers charged her $3,800 to guide her across the border – an amount relatives promised to pay once she made it to Los Angeles. She intends to cross again to join her US-born children, who stayed in California when she visited family in Mexico. "It's not as easy to get across as it once was," she says.

Still, a 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that only 873 of the nearly 2,000 miles of the Southwest border were under "operational control." Some 129 of those miles were under "full control" with the remainder "managed."

This year, another GAO report concluded that the agency lacks specific milestones and timelines to establish metrics that accurately assess border security. Agency leaders say they are working to develop them, but the question remains an open one that is crucial to immigration reform: How does one measure success?

At first, the surge targeted areas with the greatest illicit traffic. In 2005, it tried to set out a quantifiable benchmark for success, defining "operational control" as "the ability to detect, respond, and interdict border penetrations in areas deemed in high priorities for threat potential or other national security objectives."

But last year, the agency announced a new strategy, saying it would focus on repeat crossers and their intentions. For former agent Dassaro, the changes are evidence that the border patrol's objectives have become so abstract that "nobody knows what success is."

Prescriptions for success vary widely.

The district of Rep. Ron Barber (D) of Arizona is, in many ways, at the center of the immigration debate. It is part of the Tucson sector, which for years has been the most popular gateway for illegal immigration. In the rolling hills and high desert grasslands, where agents say rough terrain makes access difficult, veterinarian Gary Thrasher carries a gun when he travels to ranches near the border.

"The ranchers on the border have to put up with a huge amount of [illegal] traffic," says Mr. Thrasher, who wants more agents.

Congressman Barber sounds a similar note. In 2010, Congress approved $600 million for border security and sent 500 National Guard troops to Arizona, but too many border crossers and drugs are still getting through, he says. In his view, the border patrol needs to get better at using its resources effectively.

"We've got a long, long fence or wall across most of the border in my district, but it's not patrolled," Barber says. "Most of the time there's nobody on it in terms of personnel. So is it effective? Not really because people go over it and cut through it."

Looking inward

But others say now is the time to turn attention inward toward the estimated 11 million people living illegally in the US. "Focusing on the border is increasingly missing the point in terms of immigration enforcement," Professor DeSipio says. "Those resources could have, in the Bush years particularly, been better balanced between border enforcement and interior enforcement."

The situation today calls for a nuanced approach to enforcement that considers the significant number of people who enter the country legally and overstay their visas, says Bingel of Command Consulting Group.

"In some ways the debate needs to shift a bit to think of it more like you think of crime statistics in a city," he adds. "You wouldn't say that the police force is ineffective in a major metropolitan area unless there [is] zero crime. And you have to apply similar thinking to the border."

Ms. Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies acknowledges that fresh thinking is needed. She says the government should waive some environmental regulations that prevent border patrol agents from accessing some lands. She says officials should focus interdiction efforts not just on highways, but also on bus stations and airports. And she agrees that the US needs to look inward.

"We're reaching a point where we are much closer to operational control now, but it's really in interior enforcement where we need to pick up the pace so that it takes off some of the pressures at the physical border," she says.

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