Border Security Reality Check

By Wall Street Journal, Editorial

If this year’s immigration debate sounds familiar, that’s because so many of the arguments are leftovers. Take the demand from opponents that the U.S. must first “secure the border” before reform can pass. The reality is that the U.S. already spends vast sums on a border that is probably as “secure” as it has ever been.

The Senate Gang of Eight bill proposes a one-time $4.5 billion fund for border security, which would be on top of the $17 billion the feds already spend each year on Customs and Border Enforcement. These new expenditures would be used for a “Border Fencing Fund,” new “surveillance and detection capabilities developed or used by the Department of Defense,” additional border patrol and customs agents, “authorization for the National Guard to be deployed to the Southwest border,” manned and unmanned aircraft sufficient to “maintain continuous surveillance of the southern border,” and more.

Keep in mind this isn’t the Pakistan-Afghanistan border we’re talking about. Yet the Gang of Eight objective is to achieve “effective control in all high risk border sectors along the Southern border.” If this is not 90% accomplished within five years, the feds will spend another $2 billion.

All of this is in addition to a massive mobilization since the last border security bill in 2006. The number of border patrol agents has grown to a small army of 21,370, or triple the personnel employed as recently as the Clinton Presidency. There are an additional 21,000 Customs and Border Protection officers.

The feds have built some 300 radar and camera towers as well as 650 miles of single, double and in some places triple fencing. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) now has the ability to detain 34,000 criminals and aliens at one time. The Border Patrol deploys military-style vehicles, 276 aircraft, nearly 300 marine vessels, along with state-of-the-art surveillance.

Meanwhile, illegal entries nationwide are at four-decade lows. Apprehensions of illegal entrants exceeded 1.1 million in 2005 but by 2012 had fallen by two-thirds to 365,000, the lowest level since 1971 with the exception of 2011, the previous 40-year low. (See nearby chart.)

Last year the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined federal data on “estimated known illegal entries” across the Mexican border. The numbers were way down nearly everywhere. In San Diego, illegal entries fell to about 55,000 in 2011 from more than 265,000 in 2006. In Tucson—the gateway to Arizona—illegal entries fell to about 200,000 from 600,000 over those years. And in El Paso illegal crossings tumbled to 30,000 a year from more than 350,000.

Even more dramatic is GAO’s analysis of illegals who escape through the enforcement net, a statistic called “got aways.” In nine major Southern border crossing areas, including the main gateways of Tucson, San Diego and the Rio Grande, got aways fell to an estimated 86,000 in 2011 from 615,000 in 2006. That’s an 86% decline in foreigners who successfully snuck into the country from Mexico.

So much for the “porous border” argument. The Pew Hispanic Center found that in 2011 more Mexicans left the U.S. than entered—the first time that has happened since the Great Depression.

Even those who do come illegally are more likely to be deported. Contrary to Republican claims that President Obama has turned a blind eye to illegal aliens, the official data indicate the opposite. The number of deportations of illegal immigrants and criminals reached 1.5 million in Mr. Obama’s first term, which was roughly one-third higher than the Bush years, according to ICE data. Criminal deportations were nearly twice as high in Mr. Obama’s first term as in 2007.

The weak U.S. economy explains a lot of this immigration reversal, as does more opportunity in Mexico. But surely the vast border security apparatus also plays a role. Though some illegals still get through, the likelihood of getting caught has increased. This raises the cost of attempting to enter the U.S. illegally in the first place, though paradoxically it also increases the likelihood that illegals will stay once they get here.

One lesson is that we can continue to militarize the border, but at some point it becomes overkill. The Republicans who claim we must “secure the border first” ignore the progress already made because their real goal isn’t border security. It is to use border security as an excuse to kill immigration reform.

Republicans who truly want to improve enforcement in the Senate bill would do better to focus on increasing pathways to legal immigration, especially the number of W visas in the new guest-worker program. The border apprehension data show that the only time since 1925 that illegal entries fell more than they have in the last decade was in the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s when Congress authorized the Bracero guest-worker program. Illegal entries climbed again after the AFL-CIO lobbied Congress to kill Bracero in 1964.

Give people more legal ways to enter and exit America, and fewer will come illegally.


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