Border security has been at the center of immigration reform debates for the past three decades. The issue resurfaced during the 2013 Senate debates and after last summer’s child migration crisis. Border security, considered by some to be a precondition to implementing immigration reform, is a particularly difficult issue to legislate, as it has historically been an ill-defined concept. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Immigration Task Force recently released a report analyzing the metrics currently used to measure border security and highlighting those that are still needed to provide a clear and more comprehensive understanding of the state of the border.
Last week, BPC hosted an event to discuss the report and the importance of metrics for measuring the success of immigration enforcement. The expert panel discussed key issues related to border security, including the impact of enforcement on local communities, the need for trustworthy metrics, the role of Congress, and the varying approaches necessary to comprehensively measure security. Key takeaways included:
- 100 percent operational control of the border is unrealistic and unnecessary from a budgetary and efficiency standpoint. – Chertoff
- A trustworthy set of metrics and third party verifiers are key to the congressional border security strategy. – Anstine
- Border communities and residents should be involved in the enforcement decision making process. – Ramirez
- While federal agencies have a mixed history with reporting consistent and credible metrics, the resources exist within government and the research community to establish a comprehensive set of border security metrics. – Roberts
The event kicked off with opening remarks from former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff:
Secretary Chertoff focused on the wide range of factors and challenges that need to be considered when comprehensively measuring border security. Chertoff emphasized that the flow of migrants at the border is driven by demographic and economic forces, and it is very sensitive to U.S. policy and operational activity. In addition, Chertoff explained that there are several ways in which unauthorized immigrants can flow into the country: between the ports of entry; through the ports of entry by concealment or document fraud; and by entering legally but overstaying the period of admission. These complicated dynamics demand an equally multidimensional solution that goes beyond lining up resources at the border. According to Chertoff, a real solution to the issue of border security involves creating legal pathways for those who want to come legally, efficient interior enforcement mechanisms like E-Verify as well as deployment of resources at the border, and dealing with the current unauthorized population.
Echoing some of the report’s findings, Chertoff warned against solely relying on “brute force” statistics, like the number of agents or miles of fencing, when it comes to addressing border security. An input-based strategy that ignores outputs and results is “imprecise at best and misguided at worst,” said Chertoff. He also stressed that achieving 100 percent operational control of the border is unrealistic and unnecessary from a budgetary and efficiency perspective. Lastly, Chertoff concluded with the two key factors he believes are necessary to have a constructive conversation on border security going forward: agreement on a set of trustworthy metrics and defining what success looks like.
Following Chertoff’s opening comments, the discussion surveyed a range of issues based on questions from moderator Theresa Brown, BPC’s Director of Immigration Policy, and members of the audience. Below are some of the main themes emphasized by the expert panel:
- Paul Anstine, Staff Director, House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security.
- Michael J. Fisher, Chief, U.S. Border Patrol (BP)
- Christian Ramírez, Director, Southern Border Communities Coalition
- Bryan Roberts, Report author; Senior Economist, Econometrica, Inc.
Chief Fisher – View From the Ground
Chief Fisher focused on the Border Patrol’s evolving strategy from a resource-based approach to a more efficient and comprehensive risk-based strategy. Fisher described three factors that guide Border Patrol’s analysis of the state of the border: advance information about people looking to enter illegally; risk indicators and metrics beyond apprehension numbers; and situational awareness. Fisher specifically pointed out efforts to increase situational awareness through the use of technology. For example, through the Skyfall initiative, which collects information on crossers using coherent change detection technology, Border Patrol can monitor 900 miles of the border without agents.
Fisher also identified 12 different metrics currently used by Border Patrol—including effectiveness rate and recidivism rate—to measure border security, and highlighted the several reports his agencies released on its website to report its findings. While he mentioned that his agents make it their mission to apprehend everyone and everything coming across the border illegally, he echoed some of the other panelists’ sentiments on taking a broader, more efficient approach to measuring success.
Paul Anstine – Congress’s Approach to Border Security
Anstine concentrated on the approach and difficulties involved in attempting to legislate on border security. Anstine highlighted the questions that informed their recent efforts to craft Chairman Mike McCaul’s border security bill, the Secure Our Borders First Act of 2015: 1) What does border security look like? 2) What does it take to get there in terms of infrastructure, personnel, and technology? and 3) How to measure success? He touched on the bill’s allocation of resources (based on the varying needs of different sectors) and the 28 different metrics established to measure success (including operational control and situational awareness). He stressed that, among legislators, trust in the administration is a huge impediment to passing reform and that third party verifiers would be necessary to examine the state of the border.
Christian Ramirez – Border Enforcement and Border Communities
Ramirez underscored the lack of consideration given to the opinion of residents of border communities when border enforcement decisions are made. As a longtime resident of the border community between San Diego and Tijuana, Ramirez believes that we must focus on oversight and accountability, especially when enforcement buildups have civil rights impacts. He stressed the need for a continuing dialogue between civil society and law enforcement, and how that particular relationship should be measured when analyzing the state of the border. Ramirez believes that increased cooperation between civil society organization and law enforcement leads to safer cities.
Ramirez also warned against the unintended human consequences of border enforcement activity, like the death of people who try to cross through dangerous border areas every year. He believes that border security should not be analyzed from a strictly political or economic perspective, but a moral one as well: we have a moral obligation to prevent the loss of human life. Lastly, Ramirez also reminded the audience that many parts of our border are located in large urban centers, not in deserts in the middle of nowhere. We should always strive to facilitate cross-border trade and travel by modernizing ports of entry to make crossing the border safer and more efficient.
Bryan Roberts –Public Perceptions and Data Availability
Roberts stressed that the enforcement failures of previous efforts to reform the immigration system, namely the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), has jaded the way the public and government think of border security today. Part of the difficulty in addressing border security is the major gap of understanding among the U.S. public. In 2013, for example, 80 percent of Americans polled believed that the inflow of unauthorized migrants was the same or higher than 2003 levels, even though all available evidence shows the opposite is the case.
While Roberts admitted that U.S. federal agencies have a history of failure when it comes to establishing credible and consistent metrics, he stressed that the available data necessary already exists. Further, there is a large and willing community of researchers with the expertise necessary to help provide the sort of third-party credibility that Congress is looking for if the relevant federal agencies make the data available to them in an accessible way. In response to Chief Fisher’s comments about the reporting of data, Roberts countered that some of the data often aren’t available at the level of detail researchers need. He described ways in which those data could be made available to researchers in a way that did not compromise law enforcement’s data sensitivity concerns.
Sara Mahoney contributed to this post.