Are American Borders Secure?
Edward Alden and Bryan Roberts
Why We Don't Know, and How to Find Out
Foreign Affairs, July/
In response to record numbers of illegal border crossings and the security fears triggered by the 9/11 attacks, over the past two decades
This contradiction stems in part from the fact that the
Unfortunately, the U.S. government has failed to develop good measures for fixing goals and determining progress toward them. Since 2005, the DHS has reported how many miles of the country's land borders are under its "operational control," but it has done so without having clearly defined what that standard means and without providing hard data to back it up. The lack of sound measurement has left the administration touting its efforts rather than their results: during a press conference in 2010, Obama noted, "We have more of everything: ICE [
It is no wonder, then, that many critics dispute the president's claims. In
To move the debate on border security beyond politically driven speculation to a more serious consideration of how much enforcement is needed, and at what cost, the Obama administration must develop effective ways to measure progress on border security and then inform
For most of its history,
On its own, the number of apprehensions gives only a hazy picture of the number of immigrants actually trying to sneak across the border, since a given individual may be caught multiple times or may enter without ever being caught. Moreover, arrest figures can highlight patterns of illegal immigration but cannot explain why they change. In the early 1990s, for example,
Without data to supplement annual arrest figures, it is hard to say whether the past decade's falling apprehension numbers are a victory for enforcement or simply the result of a weaker U.S. economy that is no longer a magnet for immigrant workers. For its part, the DHS claims that effective enforcement explains the recent drop in the number of apprehensions. Yet a decade ago, the DHS' predecessor agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, claimed that better enforcement accounted for the peak in the arrest numbers. A measure that indicates success whether it rises or falls is not very useful without further information.
PATROLLING FOR DATA
On its Web site, the
A good place to start is estimating apprehension rates, that is, the number of arrests compared to total illegal crossings. With all the manpower, fencing, and surveillance that have been deployed along the U.S.-Mexican border, one would expect the U.S. government to be catching a higher percentage of illegal immigrants today than ever before. But the government currently does not report that rate.
Reasonable estimates can certainly be compiled. Since 1997, the
To be sure, this measure is almost certainly higher than the true apprehension rate, since known illegal entrants do not include those who successfully cross unnoticed. In contrast, another component of the DHS, the
Academic studies have also offered estimates of the apprehension rate. In 1994,
If the estimates based on known illegal entries are too high, these are almost certainly too low, because they do not take into account immigrants who give up trying to cross after being caught. Taking deterrence into account, the true apprehension rate today for the entire southwestern border is likely between 40 and 50 percent, and it may have risen in recent years due to increased enforcement resources. The DHS is reluctant to publish a figure, however, probably because it varies greatly among different border sectors and because the data are better for some sectors than others. Although a high apprehension rate is a positive indicator, it is still insufficient as a measure of success. As with all law enforcement, the real aim of border enforcement is to deter illegal acts. Effective enforcement is impossible if lawbreaking is the norm. Even a very high apprehension rate would be less than desirable if many people kept trying.
KEEPING ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS AT HOME
There are two types of deterrence relevant to border security: behind-the-border deterrence, in which enforcement discourages would-be immigrants from ever trying to cross illegally, and at-the-border deterrence, in which those who have been caught crossing the border at least once are deterred from trying to do so again. In an ideal system, the first kind of deterrence would work well enough to obviate the need for the second kind. Assessing behind-the-border deterrence is difficult, however, since it requires information about both people who decided to immigrate illegally and those who decided not to for fear of being caught.
The long-standing consensus of most academic research on illegal immigration, from such respected scholars as
Yet there is some evidence that deterrence is growing. The latest decline in apprehensions began well before the 2008 recession and has yet to be reversed, even as the U.S. economy is recovering. But without clearer models of illegal immigration, the administration cannot isolate the role of enforcement. The number of illegal crossings will likely rise again as the U.S. economy continues to recover, but since the current metrics are so poor, it will be impossible to tell whether that increase should be attributed to better economic conditions in
At the moment, the only available measure of at-the-border deterrence -- from surveys of Mexican immigrants -- is discouraging. It suggests that in the last decade, 90-98 percent of the Mexican nationals who tried to enter
If the goal of border enforcement is to prevent successful illegal entry into
WHY METRICS MATTER
Systematically reported apprehension rates and deterrence data would give
With better measures, the government could experiment with new programs. For example, increased numbers of legal work opportunities would likely reduce incentives to cross illegally. But unless
Similarly, improved measurement could help determine the relative effectiveness of various enforcement tools. The DHS has no real understanding of how much border control improves when the number of
Signs that the DHS and
Edward Alden is Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Bryan Roberts is Senior Economist at Nathan Associates and was Assistant Director of Borders and Immigration in the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2010
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