Border Crisis Highlights Lack of Effective Security Metrics

In the midst of the crisis on the southwest border involving the housing and free passage of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, the White House continues to peddle the claim that President Obama has bolstered security of the U.S.-Mexico border, citing as evidence the increased number of apprehensions of illegal immigrants and the unprecedented number of border patrol agents employed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).[i]

Even disregarding the current crisis, the argument is laughable: 88 percent of the increase in border patrol agents took place even before Barack Obama took office.[ii] This blatant propagandizing provides a useful exposé into the (double) standards of the Obama administration: An economic anemia persisting five years after the transition of presidential power can be forever blamed on George W. Bush, yet enhancements to border security for which Bush was largely responsible are actually the accomplishments of his successor. As Pat Condell would say, “If not for double standards, they wouldn’t have any standards.”

Momentarily forgetting about the proper allocation of credit for border security enhancements, we can focus on a more pertinent problem: The southwest border is actually very unsecure.

This problem is obscured by the common floating of a few misleading statistics. In addition to the numbers on border patrol agents and border apprehensions, supporters of the President’s immigration policies often note the zero-to-negative growth rate in the population of illegal immigrants within the United States in 2011 and 2012 (though the growth rate has recently trended positive again).[iii]

Those who push these numbers commit a couple basic logical errors. First, they assume that because net growth of the illegal immigrant population is practically zero, the border is secure. But the number of people who illegally enter the country has no bearing on border security. The border is secure only when we have the capability to keep people out. The fact that people are choosing not to immigrate does not mean that, should they change their minds, they would be unable. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) attributes a considerable portion of the increased percentage of apprehensions to the decline in immigration which accompanied the 2007-2009 recession.

What is CBP’s actual capacity to apprehend illegal immigrants? Before the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued changes to the methods for measuring border security in 2011, CBP used a gradient of security classifications to describe the security of the southwest border (see Table 1). The Border Patrol considered a particular stretch of the border to be under “operational control” if its security fell among the top two designations: “controlled” or “managed.” These designations were determined based upon the amount of resources and surveillance capabilities CBP has for a particular sector, and how useful those resources are in deterring or stopping illegal entries.

Table 1: Border Patrol Levels of Border Security 
Levels of Border Security Definition
Controlled Continuous detection and interdiction resources at the immediate border with high probability of apprehension upon entry.
Managed Multi-tiered detection and interdiction resources are in place to fully implement the border control strategy with high probability of apprehension after entry.
Monitored Substantial detection resources in place, but accessibility and resources continue to affect ability to respond.
Low-Level Monitored Some knowledge is available to develop a rudimentary border control strategy, but the area remains vulnerable because of inaccessibility or limited resource availability.
Remote/Low Activity Information is lacking to develop a meaningful border control strategy because of inaccessibility or lack of resources.

Source: GAO analysis of U.S. Border Patrol ORBBP documents.

A 2011 study by the Government Accountability Office, in examining the methods and results of the U.S. Border Patrol, found that of the 2000-mile southern U.S. border, only 873 miles were under “operational control,” and of those 873 miles, only 129 miles (15 percent of the border) were “controlled,” meaning that the Border Patrol has the ability to detect and apprehend all illegal immigrants upon entry. For the rest of the 873 miles, CBP was only able to apprehend illegal immigrants after entry (sometimes 100 miles or more away from the border). For most of the southern border, apprehensions upon entry range from difficult to impossible.[iv]

Since 2011, under direction of the DHS, CBP has abandoned the operational control metrics for assessing border security, and are currently in the process of developing new metrics. In the interim, CBP has used the number of border apprehensions as the standard of measurement for border security. As alluded to earlier, however, this method does not take into account our actual ability to repel entrants, and is too heavily influenced by other factors, such as the United States’ economic health, which partially determines how many potential immigrants attempt a crossing in the first place. In addition, CBP has not yet developed objective goals or targets that would indicate effective control on the border, and this lack of reliable measurements seriously “limits DHS and congressional oversight and accountability.”[v]

Aside from their relative obscurity and lack of accountability, however, the interim metrics’ main problem is that they are simply ineffectual: The GAO found that “studies commissioned by CBP have documented that the number of apprehensions bears little relationship to effectiveness because agency officials do not compare these numbers with the amount of cross-border illegal activity.”[vi] This is generally because, as apprehensions increase along one portion of the border, cross-border activities increase in other areas.[vii]

If the President and his DHS want to regain some semblance of credibility, they should reinstitute border security measurements for CBP based on well-defined goals, rather than sheer inputs or activities. Operational control was a good metric, but no matter what they ultimately choose, it should allow for congressional oversight and accountability to Congress and the DHS. Finally, despite the obfuscation on this issue, we should take this case of bureaucratic mishandling as a renewed impetus to secure the border.

[i] The Whitehouse. (2014). Border Security. Retrieved from: http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/immigration/border-security

[ii] United States Border Patrol. (2013). Border Patrol Agent Staffing by Fiscal Year. Retrieved from: http://www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/documents/U.S.%20Border%20Patrol%20Fiscal%20Year%20Staffing%20Statistics%201992-2013.pdf

[iii] Pew Research Center. (2013). Population Decline of Unauthorized Immigrants Stalls, May Have Reversed. Retrieved from: http://www.pewhispanic.org/2013/09/23/population-decline-of-unauthorized-immigrants-stalls-may-have-reversed/

[iv] Securing Our Borders – Operational Control and the Path Forward: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security of the Committee on Homeland Security, House of Representatives, 111th Congress. (2011). (testimony of Richard M. Stana). Border Security: Preliminary Observations on Border Control Measures for the Southwest Border. Retrieved from: http://www.gao.gov/assets/130/125500.pdf

[v] What Does a Secure Border Look Like?: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security of the Committee on Homeland Security, House of Representatives, 113th Congress. (2013). (testimony of Rebecca Gambler). Goals and Measures Not Yet in Place to Inform Border Security Status and Resource Needs. Retrieved from: http://docs.house.gov/meetings/HM/HM11/20130226/100300/HHRG-113-HM11-Wstate-GamblerR-20130226.pdf

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ordonez, K. (2008). Securing the United States Mexico Border: An On-Going Dilemma. Homeland Security Affairs. Retrieved from: http://www.hsaj.org/?special:fullarticle=0.2.5

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