What Does ‘Secure the Border’ Actually Mean?
Alan Bersin, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, was asked a good question during a talk this afternoon hosted by the Migration Policy Insitute: Securing the border is his job, but what exactly does he consider a secure border?
It’s an interesting question, particularly given the debate over when the country should take on comprehensive immigration reform to deal with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. One side of the debate argues the borders must be secured before the government can take steps to allow some of those illegal immigrants to gain legal status. On the other side — the one the Obama administration has supported — reform advocates argue that providing paths to legalization for some illegal immigrants is necessary to reducing tensions and creating secure borders. But neither side seems to provide a clear answer as to what factors would indicate that the border was officially “secure.”
Bersin did not make such a pronouncement either, but he did provide some clarification into the Obama administration’s objectives. “What we mean by border security is public safety, and this perception in the community that the border is being reasonably managed,” he said.
It’s possible to measure public safety: The FBI and other organizations track rates of violent crime and property crime across the country. But perception is trickier to define. While some polls have indicated that residents of border regions feel safe, rhetoric among some officials encourages high levels of fear about illegal immigration. Warranted or not, this definition means the border cannot be secure unless all residents of border regions think it is secure — a seemingly impossible feat given the length of the border and the differences of opinion on the issue.
The problem is that no one seems to be exactly sure how many resources should be directed at the border. After National Guard troops were deployed to the southern border in recent months, national security experts argued that the government had done too little research to determine what methods were actually effective at keeping illegal immigrants and smuggled items from crossing the border. “We frankly don’t have a very good understanding of what we should invest more in and where we should spend our resources,” Jack Riley, director of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, told Politico last month.
When Bersin was asked how many agents, roughly, would be needed to secure the border, he hedged. “We need to obtain a secure southwest border to say how many agents we need,” he said.
On the one hand, this makes sense: The border is 1,950 miles long, and needs for agents shift as migrants and smugglers change their routes for entering the country. But the lack of specifics seems to leave a large window for anti-comprehensive immigration reform to demand more border patrol, whether or not it is actually increasing safety and security.
There are currently 20,000 Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border — higher than at any time in the country’s history. The Obama administration argues the border is at its most secure point in history, citing lower rates of illegal immigration and increased enforcement within the country.
But in the end, securing the border fully — or completely eliminating illegal immigration — is impossible while illegal immigrants can still find work in the U.S., Bersin said. “Absent comprehensive immigration reform, people will try to enter the country illegally,” he said. “We will try to stop that, and we are doing that better than ever. But absent reform, that will continue.”
If Republicans define a secure border in absolute terms, then, it seems likely gridlock over immigration reform will continue.