CMS Dialogue: How Does the United States Define and Measure Border Security?

On February 1, 2012, the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) hosted a dialogue on defining border security, establishing appropriate enforcement metrics, and determining how much security is enough.  Speakers included Fernando Garcia, Executive Director of the Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR), a community organizing agency based in El Paso, Texas; Edward (Ted) Alden, the Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Deputy Chief Ronald D. Vitiello of the US Department of Homeland Security(DHS), Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Border Patrol.

Donald Kerwin, CMS’s Executive Director, introduced the speakers and topic.  The increased securitization of US borders has resulted in 21,444 Border Patrol agents; nearly 700 miles of fencing; and the use of extensive surveillance systems, including pilotless drones.  The meeting sought to explore several questions.  What does it mean that apprehensions – the traditional metric used by the Border Patrol to assess border control – have fallen to levels not experienced since the early 1970s?  Has the United States reached a tipping point in securing the US-Mexico border?  What metrics – beyond apprehensions – should DHS use to measure effective control of the border?  How do local residents view the security of their communities?

Mr. Kerwin pointed out that apprehensions in other contexts (like drug arrests) were seen as a measure of successful enforcement, but that the opposite seemed to be the case with arrests for immigration violations.  He raised the issue of whether CBP used all of the data it had collected in its IDENT database — on persons arrested, legitimate travelers and those seeking immigration benefits — to craft and assess the effectiveness of its enforcement strategies.  He said that “operational control” of the border had been used as a political tool.  Despite significant enforcement successes, many Members of Congress still argue that DHS/CBP is failing to enforce the law, thus making immigration reform inadvisable.

Mr. Garcia asserted that stringent border policies and practices did not reflect on-the-ground realities. According to BNHR’s “Border Community Security Poll,” border residents believe that their communities are as safe as most communities in the nation. Crime statistics bear them out.  Mr. Garcia stated that the relative safety of border communities stands in stark contrast to the political discourse that portrays the border as a “lawless war zone” that demands ever greater security investments. He cited the need for greater accountability in the implementation and design of border control strategies, decrying blockade strategies that push migrants to more treacherous crossing routes.  Despite decreased apprehensions, annual death rates remain high.  Mr. Garcia praised the willingness of CBP to address concerns related to the effect of particular enforcement strategies on border communities. In the BNHR’s annual community security poll, complaints against the Border Patrol have decreased in recent years.  Mr. Garcia highlighted the need for training at the Border Patrol academy, and to address training programs and complaint processes rather than concentrating on how many agents are deployed.   Mr. Garcia maintained that responsible border enforcement policies should integrate national security concerns, community security, economic development and respect for human and constitutional rights.

Mr. Alden said that the US government does not regularly release its internal calculations of “known illegal entries.”  However, enormous efforts have been made to secure the borders over the last several years.  Apprehension rates approached an all-time high of nearly 1.7 million in FY 2000 and have begun to decline significantly in recent yearsIt is difficult to assess how much this reduction is due to enforcement and how much to the weakened US economy, but certainly enforcement seems to be making a significant difference.  Mr. Alden stated that apprehensions measured events, not persons arrested: the Border Patrol separately counted multiple arrests of one person.  He argued that the US will never again reach the historic 1.7 million apprehension number.   He estimates that between 40 and 60 percent of illegal crossers over the US-Mexico border are arrested, though DHS has never reported such a figure.  This rate parallels the rate for apprehending criminals who commit violent crimes.  Overall, Mr. Alden argued for more transparency from DHS so that the public and researchers could assess its success.  He also said that immigration officials have developed the capacity to determine whether most non-immigrants (temporary visitors) have overstayed their visas based on outgoing passenger records from airlines.  Ultimately, this information will allow ICE to search for visa overstayers who present security concerns, and will allow DOS to deny visas to those who have overstayed visas in the past.

Chief Ronald D. Vitiello said that a tipping point on border security had been reached, but that the nature of the threat had changed with the risk of crossings by members of violent drug cartels.  While prevention-through-deterrence used to be the DHS enforcement model, CBP is now able to classify those it arrests and tailor its enforcement responses accordingly.  Vitiello confirmed that the only enforcement metric reported by the CBP has been apprehensions data, but said that the Border Patrol has become adept at assessing “border entry attempts” through technology, craftsmanship, and other means.  This means that CBP will eventually be able to assess not just apprehension numbers, but efficiency and effectiveness rates.  Its Border Condition Index sets security metrics factors like interdiction efficiency, total illegal flows, and quality of life in border communities.  Chief Vitiello reported that repeated crossings by individuals have been decreasing.  Arrested recidivists have, on average, been arrested fewer times now than in the past.

The three speakers discussed the need for a broader set of enforcement metrics, including the quality of life in border communities.  They also agreed that a primary goal of border security should be to ensure higher rates of legal crossings, and that sustained increases in legal crossing would be most likely to occur through some combination of enforcement and reform of the underlying laws. Mr. Alden made the discouraging point, however, that as enforcement has become more effective, Congressional support for immigration reform legislation has decreased.