Five Misconceptions about Border Security

Five Misconceptions about Border Security

By Adam Isacson and Maureen Meyer*

The notion of “securing the border” has been put forward as a precondition to immigration reform. But in our current political debate, there is a dangerous gap between rhetoric and the real security situation on the border. WOLA’s Border Security project has been studying the U.S.-Mexico border for two years. Here are five misconceptions we’ve heard:

1. The federal government isn't doing enough to secure the border.

In recent years federal border security efforts have increased dramatically. The number of Border Patrol agents has multiplied by more than five times in the last two decades. By the end of 2012, there were 18,516 Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border, up from 9,891 in 2005 and 3,555 in 1992. Custom and Border Protection’s Office of Air and Marine now has over 290 aircraft at its disposal, including seven Predator drones patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border.

The various security agencies have grown so quickly that managerial and interagency snarls may pose the largest challenge today. Every agency operating on the border has its own intelligence capability, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the Department of Defense, and state governments. This has led to a profusion of task forces, fusion centers, and liaison offices aiming to get rapidly burgeoning agencies to share information with each other.

2. Immigration across the border is increasing.

All evidence suggests that the migrant population from Mexico has plummeted. Apprehensions of undocumented migrants in the border zone, the best approximation of flows, dropped by 69 percent between 2005 and 2012. As a result, the annual number of migrant apprehensions per Border Patrol agent dropped from 123 in 2005 to just 19 in 2012. Adding more Border Patrol agents would not be cost effective and would result instead in diminishing returns.

Although migration has decreased, the journey has become more deadly. As some of the longtime routes have been closed off, migrants have been pushed to more remote and dangerous areas. In the Tucson area, for example, the number of migrant deaths has increased in relation to the number of migrants apprehended, indicating a greater danger of dying of dehydration or exposure in a remote, inhospitable desert.

3. Violence is spilling over the border from Mexico to the United States

Violent crime rates have skyrocketed on Mexico's side of the border in recent years as a result of fighting between organized crime groups. Related homicides in Mexico’s six northern border states accounted for approximately 25 percent of the nation’s total for 2012.

This violence, however, has not crossed over to the U.S. side of the border. According to FBI Uniform Crime Reports, homicide and violent crime rates for all U.S. cities within 100 miles of the border are below the U.S. national average, below their states' averages, and about one-twentieth the average of cities on Mexico's side of the border. El Paso, which has the lowest homicide rate of all U.S. cities over 500,000 population, sits across the Rio Grande from Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez, which in 2010 had among the highest homicide rates in the world. Border area civic and business leaders are justifiably angry at politicians—in some cases the governors of their own states—who portray their cities as war zones.

4. Today's migrants can be deterred by tougher laws and policies.

The U.S. security buildup of the last several years probably isn't the principal reason why fewer migrants are attempting to enter U.S. territory through the desert. A factor of at least equal importance is the stagnation of the U.S. job market since the 2008 financial crisis. Mexico, meanwhile, has been posting higher growth rates than the United States, and has undergone major demographic changes, like a dramatic drop in the number of children per family.

A small number of would-be migrants do report being dissuaded by tougher policies, but a growing percentage of migrants are being driven by motivations such as family reunification. According to ICE, during the first six months of 2011, 22 percent of deported migrants—a total of 46,486 people—left U.S. citizen children behind. It is hard to imagine that a mother separated from her children, or a husband from his wife, would stay away because of a federal government zero-tolerance policy.

5. Migration is the most pressing policy challenge along the border.

One of the biggest challenges today is the overwhelmed and understaffed official ports of entry. While Border Patrol—which operates between the ports of entry—doubled since 2005, employees of CBP’s Office of Field Operations, which interviews and inspects all would-be crossers, grew by only 15 percent, to about 5,700. As a result, waits to cross the border routinely last a commerce-stifling one to two hours or more. The majority of drugs smuggled into the United States continue to pass through these ports of entry. Evidence suggests that drugs are flowing at least as much as ever: border seizures of methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana, and ecstasy are way up, which indicates that traffickers are very active. To deal with this problem effectively, additional investment in border security needs to go to the agents at the ports of entry, not to the Border Patrol between them.

In addition, there are humanitarian issues related to rising numbers of deportations and to the treatment of migrants. For instance, growing evidence indicates that extra-legal measures are commonly applied to deliberately make the deportation experience humiliating and even abusive. In 2011, a coalition of Arizona-based advocacy groups found in a study that over 10 percent of the 12,895 interviewed individuals suffered physical abuse, along with routine denial of water and food, deliberate sleep deprivation, separation of families, failure to return personal belongings, and other violations of rights and dignity while in custody. Preferred methods of deportation now include abandoning adult male migrants in dangerous Mexican cities in the middle of the night when shelters and services are closed and where migrants don’t have networks of support and are more vulnerable to organized crime.

*Adam Isacson (Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy) and Maureen Meyer (Senior Associate for Mexico and Central America) are experts on security and U.S.-Mexico relations.

Photo by George Withers.

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Additional resources:

  • Beyond the Border Buildup: Security and Migrants along the U.S.-Mexico Border: A year-long study of the current security situation on the U.S.-Mexico border and the impact of both countries' security policies on the migrant population. The study looks at the impact of the fivefold increase in the size of the U.S. Border Patrol in the last two decades, the changing role of U.S. soldiers along the border, the impact of drones and other high-tech surveillance, and the increase in risks faced by migrants on their journey. The study’s executive summary can be found here.
  • Border Security and Migration: A Report from South Texas: WOLA experts found an increase in migration flows and a doubling in migrant deaths in this area in just one year. In contrast to what has been reported in other parts of the border, this new report notes that there are fewer accusations of Border Patrol abuse in South Texas. At the same time, U.S. authorities are increasingly repatriating Mexicans through this area, often making migrants easy prey for the dangerous criminal groups that operate in these Mexican border cities.
  • Border Fact Check: A frequently updated blog that separates rhetoric from reality on issues related to the U.S.-Mexico border. Our experts analyze current claims in the ongoing political debate.
  • Border Security Infographics: A series of graphics that help visualize the most recent data—ranging from the number of migrants apprehended per border patrol agent over time to increasing drug seizures, migration flows, and migrant deaths, as well as other aspects of border security.
  • An Uneasy Coexistence: Security and Migration along the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez Border: In this report, WOLA examines the huge security buildup in the area and finds that there is no violence spilling over into the United States and that migration is dropping while drug trafficking persists. This report also describes the multitude of state, federal, and local authorities operating in this region whose roles often overlap.