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The Meaningless Mantra of 'Border Security'

Author: Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow
June 2, 2010
Wall Street Journal

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President Obama has called out 1,200 National Guard troops and asked Congress for another $500 million to secure the border with Mexico. His former presidential rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, says we need 6,000 troops and $2 billion to do the job. The truth is neither has the slightest idea what it will take.

Border security has become the most overused—and least understood—concept in the struggle over what to do about our broken immigration system. While an election year may not be the best time, the United States finally needs an honest debate over what it means to secure the country's borders—and what it would take to achieve that goal.

Does a secure border mean one in which no one is able to cross between the legal entry ports? The most secure border in modern history was probably the Cold War border between East and West Germany. To keep their people from leaving—logistically much easier than keeping others from entering—the East Germans built more than 700 watchtowers, sprinkled more than a million antipersonnel mines, created a deep no-man's zone of barbed wire and electric fencing, and deployed nearly 50 guards per square mile with shoot-to-kill orders. Even so about 1,000 people each year somehow managed to find a way across.

Judging from my email inbox, there are some in the country who would favor a similar approach on the southwest border, but presumably this is not what is meant by the proponents of "border security first."

Would a secure border then be one over which the U.S. government exercises "operational control"? This is the term of art used by the Border Patrol, and it essentially means that border agents have the capacity to detect and respond to most, if not all, illegal crossings. By that measure, about 700 miles of the border with Mexico are currently deemed to be under control.

Expanding that zone of control is surely a sensible policy to pursue. But at what cost? Without successful deployment of remote sensing technologies, it would take tens of thousands more agents on top of the record 20,000 already deployed to bring operational control to the U.S. borders. Technology was expected to cut those manpower needs dramatically, but the so-called Secure Border Initiative has cost taxpayers nearly a billion dollars so far and has yet to demonstrate even a workable pilot system.

Perhaps a secure border is simply one in which enforcement capabilities are bolstering deterrence and dissuading more and more people from attempting illegal crossings. By that standard, the border is more secure than it has ever been at any time in American history. The one number the Border Patrol collects with absolute confidence is the apprehensions it makes each year of illegal border crossers. The smaller that number, the better, because it shows a decline in those attempting illegal crossings.

Last year, the number of apprehensions at the border with Mexico was 540,000, the lowest since the early 1970s, half the level of 2005, and just one-third the figure of a decade ago. Much of this decline is certainly due to a weak economy and higher U.S. unemployment, though it is noteworthy that in the last deep recession (1981-82) there was only a slight dropoff in apprehensions, and the total number remained close to one million annually.

Only as the economy fully recovers will it become clear whether increased enforcement is having a strong deterrent effect, but the numbers this year are encouraging. Despite the improved economy, apprehensions to date are running 9% lower than 2009 levels.

The debate over border security is further complicated because much of what is troubling the residents of Arizona and other border states is a result of the federal government's success in securing the border, not its failure. Doubling the size of the Border Patrol in just the last five years has made it harder to cross illegally. As a result, many more would-be border crossers have turned to smuggling gangs, who have brought with them the trappings of organized crime (safe houses, kidnappings, violence to settle internal conflicts) that have left border residents feeling less secure even as the number of illegal border crossings has plummeted.

Finally, measuring border security is difficult because many of the policies that affect border security are not carried out on the border. Tougher workplace enforcement to prevent hiring of unauthorized workers would dissuade many from attempting illegal crossings. More visas for foreign workers could persuade some to follow legal routes to the U.S. rather than risking the illegal ones. The logic of comprehensive immigration reform has long been that doing these other things as well makes a secure border easier to achieve—a logic that "border security first" unfortunately turns on its head.

There is no "correct" definition of border security. It depends on what price the U.S. as a country is willing to pay for incremental gains in apprehensions and deterrence. But unless we begin a sensible debate on what a secure border means, and how to get there, badly needed immigration legislation will forever be hostage to an elusive goal.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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