What Does it Mean to “Secure the Border” Before Reforming Immigration?

What Does it Mean to “Secure the Border” Before Reforming Immigration?

Note: This analysis was originally posted on WOLA's Border Fact Check blog.

By Adam Isacson

“It’s simple to me to fix it. I think you control the border first. You create a pathway for those people that are here — you don’t say you’ve got to go home. And that is a position that I’ve evolved on. Because, you know what, it’s got to be resolved. The majority of people here, if some people have criminal records you can send them home, but if people are here, law-abiding, participating for years, their kids are born here, you know, first secure the border, pathway to citizenship, done.”

— Conservative radio host Sean Hannity, November 8, 2012.

Numerous leading Republicans appear to be adopting a pro-immigration reform stance in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s November 6 presidential election defeat, in which the Latino vote played an important role.

Like Hannity, though, many of these suddenly pro-reform figures stipulate that the border must first be secured before there can be movement toward comprehensive immigration reform.

“I have a simple request for the President and Congress: Secure our border first,” reads a November 9 statement from Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R). “Demonstrate that you take seriously the safety concerns of Americans living in the border region. With that completed, we can pursue – together – ways to fix our Nation’s broader immigration system in a fashion that is effective, practical and humane.”

“When you see this comprehensive immigration reform coming like a train, on our side, we are all very interested in that issue, but we have to have a high degree of confidence that our borders are secure,” said Rep. Candace Miller (R-Michigan), chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security.

The Facts:

“Securing the border first” may prove to be an impossible standard to meet. Relying on this standard could become a means to postpone immigration reform indefinitely.

  • Though apprehensions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped by 61 percent between 2005 and 2011, the U.S. Border Patrol still apprehended 327,577 migrants there in 2011. Though in fewer numbers, migrants are still able to get through.
  • Seizures of drugs in the U.S-Mexico border zone remain near all-time high levels. While this indicates more effectiveness at stopping drugs, it also shows that traffickers are not being deterred.
  • While crime statistics show that “spillover” of violence from Mexico is very rare, incidents do occur, like the September 2010 murder of a boater on Falcon Lake, Texas; the December 2010 murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in Arizona; and the October 2011 wounding of a sheriff’s deputy in Hidalgo County, Texas.
  • 649 miles of the 1,954-mile border now has a fence running along it (see page 9), but most of the Texas-Mexico border along the winding Rio Grande remains unfenced. To build a fence, estimates Texas Governor Rick Perry (R-Texas), would “take 10 to 15 years and US$30 billion.

The 2006 Secure Fence Act set out the following definition for “operational control” of the border: “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband.”

Despite a large federal border-security buildup and a sharp reduction in migration and violence on the U.S. side of the border, that standard of preventing all unlawful entries remains far from met, and is likely to remain so.

“They’ll never secure the border 100 percent,” the controversial sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, told the conservative Breitbart News website on November 13. “So it’s a cop-out so you don’t do anything in the interior.”

If opponents want to delay comprehensive immigration reform indefinitely, they can do so by insisting on “securing the border first.” It seems disingenuous, though, to do so while claiming to support immigration reform.