The issue of “border security” has become a key obstacle to the passage of federal immigration reform, and it is a virulent issue in the Republican presidential primaries. Repeated pledges by Republican leaders that their party would be sensitive to the concerns of Latinos and other immigrants have been quickly cast aside by the presidential candidates in favor of exaggerated claims and outright xenophobia.
The remaining Republican presidential candidates have kept immigration at the forefront. Donald Trump, the current GOP front-runner, has warned that if things don’t turn around soon, immigrants may destroy America. “People are flowing into this county by the millions, not by the thousands, and destroying the fabric of the country,” Trump warned in 2015. Trump’s solution to this problem is to build a wall on the Mexican border, which he has promised to be “the greatest wall you have ever seen.” Marco Rubio has said that, “When I’m president, if we don’t know who you are and we don’t know why you are coming, you are not getting in to the United States.” And Ted Cruz has lamented that immigrants “just keep coming.” “Until you secure the border, none of the rest of it matters,” Cruz said in a campaign appearance in New Hampshire.
When you hear Republicans talk, you would think that the borders were being flooded with immigrants. If it were 2003, these claims may have carried some force. At the time, there had been large-scale undocumented migration for a sustained period, the border was relatively porous, and immigration enforcement in the country was less organized than it could have been. But today, the facts on the ground have changed dramatically, and the Republican obsession with border security has become outdated, misleading, and counterproductive.
The key question here is defining what constitutes a “secure” border. It is ludicrous to say the goal is for zero illegal immigration. The Berlin Wall was not leak-proof, and even the “greatest wall you have ever seen” is not going to stop everyone. So what is the definition of “secure”? Do we define “secure” by the physical barrier, and do we claim it is “secure” once there is a wall across the entire southern border? Do we define “secure” by the number of illegal immigrants who slip through, and how many are acceptable per year? Do we define “secure” by how much money we just need to spend before we declare victory, and if so, how much, one billion dollars, one trillion?
If Republicans want a sealed border to all unauthorized traffic – something that hardly seems possible – they should simply say so. Because then we can move the debate from vacuous phrases like “secure border” to hard numbers. And when we do that, the idea that we cannot act on immigration without addressing the issue of “border security” is shown to be what it actually is, a red herring.
Despite repeated failures by Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, massive enforcement resources have been deployed at the border and in the interior through changes to administrative policy, congressional appropriations, and the passage of discrete enforcement legislation such as the Secure Fence Act. The results have been profound:
Net undocumented migration is below zero (and has been since 2012). In fact “[m]ore Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico from the U.S. than have migrated here since the end of the Great Depression,” according to the Pew Research Center.
The number of people apprehended crossing the border has been steadily decreasing. By some measures, the number of people trying to cross the border is the lowest it has been since part of the 1970s. This is the case, even as border agents now patrol every single mile of the border every day and in many places have 100 percent eyes on the border.
Annual deportations have reached historic levels. “Each year of the Obama administration has seen more deportations than any preceding president,” Reuters acknowledged. “[T]he pre-Obama high of 358,886 removals in FY2008 came during President George W. Bush’s last full fiscal year in office.” Furthermore, most of these removals occur within 100 miles of the border.
The fact of the matter is that, by objective measures, the border is more secure than it has ever been.
Getting to this point, however, has been extraordinarily expensive. In 2016, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection budget is $13.56 billion. Take just one aspect of border security. Between 2006 and 2009 alone, $2.4 billion was spent to build about 670 miles of pedestrian and vehicle-resistant fencing, plus 300 towers and nine drones. Proposals to increase the fence further along the 2,000-mile border have been estimated by the General Accounting Office at $3.9 million per mile. Despite the cost, the demand for more fencing persists. The cost of “border security” never gets discussed. But how many times are we willing to double the size of border patrol and this aspect of border security before we decide we’re going to stop doing it? How much needs to be spent? In the face of constrained budgets, it hardly seems that spending billions on fences is viable.
It is important to note that the narrow focus on border security is not just a Republican obsession. Indeed, President Obama has repeatedly pledged (#1) that his administration is “going to be much more aggressive at the border in ensuring that people come through the system legally.” And despite the bilious blather from Republicans to the contrary, these repeated promises were not just empty rhetoric – after all, President Obama has deported more people (#2) than any U.S. president before him, and almost more than every other president combined from the 20th century. But this is particularly true of the Republican Party. “Secure the border first,” it seems, is the price of admission into the conversation about immigration policy in conservative circles.
Of course, few quibble with the desire to have basic border security that guarantees orderly transit into and out of the United States. The problem, though, is that the repeated assertions about lax border security are simply, demonstrably false. The singular focus on the issue, and the lies peddled by Republican politicians throughout the United States, have distorted our immigration policy by further complicating all the issues surrounding immigration.
That has real consequences.
Mixed-status immigrant families live in ongoing fear of deportation and separation, a situation that has profound emotional, educational, and health impacts on children. The question that needs to be asked is this: how does the border security issue address the status of millions of undocumented immigrants currently in the United States? The answer: it doesn’t. And that’s the point.
Republicans have no intention on acting on comprehensive immigration reform, and the issue of “border security” – with its shifting definition and no real way to measure success – will always give them an excuse not to.
Featured Image Credit: BBC World Service on Flickr (via creative commons license)