What DOES Border Security Look Like?

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President Obama, Congress, and a growing majority of American voters agree that the U.S. immigration system is broken and must be fixed. However, more than a month into the president’s second term and an unending national debate, the question remains: will anything actually happen on immigration reform? Recent events, including a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” held February 13th provided us with an inkling of what we might have in store. Committee Chair Senator Leahy (D-Vt.) echoed President Obama saying “Now is the time” for immigration reform. Meanwhile, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) saw “overconfidence on this (immigration reform) bill” and asserted that he and others will continue to fight it over issues of earned legalization, enforcement, and border security. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators working on their own comprehensive immigration framework, indicated support for making reform happen, he also noted that any discussions thus far include “triggers that need to be tripped in terms of border security…”

The House Committee on Homeland Security will continue the immigration discussion during today’s hearing entitled “What Does a Secure Border Look Like?” That title question cuts closer to the substantive disagreements over border security, but can it possibly be answered in such a polarized political atmosphere? Certainly no one, including border communities themselves, would propose an “insecure” or “unsafe” border, but on Capitol Hill, consensus regarding the definition of “secure” is elusive, as Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano acknowledged during the recent Senate hearing.

What do people mean when they talk about “border security”?  Typically, it refers to “boots on the ground (i.e. the number of border agents) and border fencing. In past legislative proposals, Congress laid out border triggers that had to be met before other aspects of immigration reform could move forward.  However, recent studies have shown that these triggers have been either met or exceeded, including those laid out by Senate Bill S. 1348, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007.

When asked by Congress, Secretary Napolitano has said “Our borders have in fact never been stronger.” There are plenty of numbers and statistics floating around regarding the massive number of enforcement agents and infrastructure deployed at the border, but here are a few widely corroborated figures evidencing that the previously proposed border triggers have already been met, and then some.
–    The US government spending on border enforcement, including US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), surpassed $17.9 billion, more than that of all other principle criminal federal law enforcement agencies combined.
–    As of February 2012, the Border Patrol had 21,370 agents, exceeding the 2007 goal; and the combined staff of ICE, CBP and US-VISIT numbers 81,000 to date.
–    About 651 miles of fence have been constructed along the US-Mexican border, 1 mile short of the Secure Fence Act mandate.
–    There are 9 drones for air surveillence and 333 video surveillance systems on the southern border.
–    Fewer and fewer non-citizens are apprehended at the border despite better surveillance—down to 365,000 in FY 2012.

These numbers should indicate that the current border trigger debate is misdirected. The focus keeps returning to personnel and unmanned aerial vehicles when these requirements have been met. The focus of a secure border should shift toward real security and safety for all involved.

Earlier this month in a letter to President Obama, border groups and allies, representing faith, labor, immigrant rights, and human and civil rights groups around the nation, called for a shift in U.S. border policy and a re-envisioning of the term “border security”. The groups underscored the “senselessness of continuing to build a border enforcement regime,” citing that at least 22 people have been killed or seriously injured by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials since January 2010. Such incidents of excessive use of force which continue to rise aren’t going unnoticed. PBS’s Need to Know uncovered footage in which CBP agents beat and tased Anastasio Hernandez, who died shortly thereafter.  The Mexican government, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have all urged the authorities to investigate these abuses, including incidents of excessive use of lethal force, and take steps to ensure that they do not happen again. “As employees of the nation’s largest law enforcement agency,” reads the letter, “CBP officials should be trained and held to the highest professional law enforcement standards.” We agree. Human rights, for non-U.S citizens as well as citizens, should not be the casualty of border security triggers.

The bipartisan Senate framework commendably includes the promise to “strengthen prohibitions against racial profiling and inappropriate use of force, enhance the training of border patrol agents, increase oversight, and create a mechanism to ensure meaningful opportunity for border communities to share input, including critiques.” No question, members of border communities should be invited to testify in congressional hearings and express their concerns — concerns which seem to be less about the number of drones and more about the lack of resources dedicated to ports of entry and how the lack of accountability over abusive enforcement officials and operations harms families and communities. 

Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR) summed up the misconception of the physical border security buildup:

We are living under the massive buildup of enforcement from the last several years on the border. And while these politicians want to talk border security, they seem unwilling and unable to talk about the consequences of it. These consequences include civil and human rights violations in our communities, migrant deaths and families torn apart.

As long as any members of Congress continue to equate more boots-on-the-ground or fence as border security, the effects will continue to be harmful to border communities and environments, migrants themselves, and the progress of effective legislation to create a pathway to citizenship and shape the future of immigration in the United States. They shouldn’t allow immigration reform to be held hostage by ill-conceived, outdated triggers.