Be Like Janet, Dammit

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano testifying on comprehensive immigration reform before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday.

Speaking about the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, California, on Monday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano assured the audience that "the border is secure ... I believe it is a safe border," an assessment she reprised yesterday in a Senate hearing on immigration reform. "I often hear the argument that before reform can move forward we must first secure our borders, but too often the ‘border security first’ refrain simply serves as an excuse for failing to address the underlying problems," Napolitano said. "Our borders have, in fact, never been stronger."

In advance of the administration's push for immigration reform, the secretary has quietly been making the case that after a decade-long ramp-up in investment, the wave of unchecked immigration that began in the 1990s has come to an end. Indeed, in the last seven years the U.S. has doubled the number of border patrol agents and deported undocumented immigrants at record rates. Because of these efforts, the sluggish U.S. economy, and reform in Mexico, net immigration has fallen to zero from a high of 525,000 in 2000. 

But you'd hardly know this was the case if you tuned in to watch the State of the Union address this week, in which Obama appeared to call for an increase in enforcement. "Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my administration has already made," the president told Congress.

Obama's hawkish rhetoric on immigration is no doubt intended to appease Republicans, who have insisted on securing the border before reforming the legal immigration system. But what does "secure" mean? The 2006 Secure Fence Act called for "operational control" of our borders, which it defined 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.” But this is completely unrealistic: It is simply not possible to intercept every single illegal entrant or ensure that absolutely no illegal drugs make it into the country. If totally sealing the southern border is a prerequisite for tackling immigration reform, we'll be waiting forever—which, for Republicans who oppose granting citizenship to the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the country, is largely the point.

Because operational control does not offer a useful metric for progress on immigration enforcement, in 2009 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) redefined success as the "ability to detect, respond, and interdict illegal activity at the border or after entry into the United States.” DHS then assigned one of five classifications to different sections of the border. According to testimony from U.S. Border Patrol Chief Michael Fischer, 81 percent of the border met one of the top three classifications in 2012. Since 2011, however, DHS has been developing a more sophisticated "border condition index" that takes into account quantitative factors like the number of apprehensions, enforcement resources, and crime statistics as well as "quality of life" along the border. The border condition index was slated to be finalized last year, but has been beset by delays.

In the absence of new measures, the primary way to gage control of the border continues to be by looking at apprehensions and enforcement resources. As Obama noted in his speech, apprehensions have fallen dramatically since he took office:

This data, however, has its limits. As critics point out, the number of people we intercept does not necessarily reflect how effectively we are doing so, nor does it tell us the number or percentage of people who are getting through illegally. Some have assailed the Obama administration for not tallying that data, but if you could accurately count the number of people slipping through the cracks, they wouldn't be slipping through the cracks, would they? As I've said in the past, it's useful to compare border enforcement to crime prevention: It's impossible to tell how many crimes were not committed because of police efforts. But coupled with data on enforcement resources, it's clear that we aren't apprehending fewer people because enforcement has eased:

Apprehensions and enforcement data are of course only a rough measure of the effectiveness of our border-security approach; in an open society, rough measures are all we can provide. It is difficult to tell whether we've reached the point of equilibrium at which resources adequately address the need, but as the Center for American Progress has noted, we have met or exceeded enforcement benchmarks laid out in previous immigration bills. What was striking about the president's speech this week was the extent to which it feeds into an outdated frame. The template for all immigration-reform proposals going back a decade has been to couple legal reforms with increased enforcement. But in the absence of legal reform, only enforcement has moved forward. Like Secretary Napolitano, Obama needs to counter the perception that the Southwest is a violent war zone where anarchy reigns, or that nothing has changed since George W. Bush's push for immigration reform in his second term. The Obama administration has spent billions of dollars ensuring the safety of the southern border, and it will be crucial for the president to acknowledge this in order to move on to the legal reforms the immigration system so desperately needs.

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