WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
22 Apr 2013 | Commentary | News

Senate Bill Sets an Unmeetable Standard on Border Security

UPDATE May 5: As the Senate Judiciary Committee begins to markup the immigration legislation, critics have offered amendments that would make reform dependent on measureable progress in securing the border.  These “trigger” proposals would have the effect of undermining reform.  

Analysis and data compiled by WOLA’s Adam Isacson demonstrates that even the effectiveness rate target in the original bill presents an elusive and unreachable goal.


Eight senators presented ambitious immigration reform legislation last week (S. 744). So ambitious, in fact, that it sets a border security standard that may be too high to meet in reality.

To understand why, consider these definitions, from the text of the legislation.

  • The bill sets a “Border Security Goal” of achieving and maintaining “effective control” in “high risk border sectors” along the U.S.-Mexico border.

It defines “high risk border sectors” as those where authorities apprehended 30,000 or more migrants in a year. Of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border, five were “high risk” in 2011 and three were “high risk” in 2012.


  • It defines “effective control” as “the ability to achieve and maintain, in a Border Patrol sector, persistent surveillance and an effectiveness rate of 90 percent or higher.”

Here is where things get complicated.

  • The law defines effectiveness rate as “the percentage calculated by dividing the number of apprehensions and turn backs in the sector during a fiscal year by the total number of illegal entries in the sector during such fiscal year.”

In other words:


So to achieve a 90 percent effectiveness rate, authorities would need to capture, or chase back to Mexican territory, 90 percent of all migrants they detect.

We believe that this target of a 90 percent “effectiveness rate” in “high risk border sectors” is likely to go unmet.

Here, from a December 2012 Government Accountability Office report, are the “effectiveness rates” for the five so-called “high risk” sectors in 2011. (2012 data on “turn-backs” and “got-aways” are not currently public.)

  • San Diego, CA 91.9 percent effectiveness rate; 42,389 apprehensions; 8,992 “turn backs”; and 4,553 “got aways”
  • El Centro, CA 90.5 percent; 30,172; 4,402; and 3,612
  • Tucson, AZ 86.9 percent; 124,363; 43,539; and 25,376
  • Laredo, TX 84 percent; 35,201; 14,233; and 9,449
  • Rio Grande Valley, TX 70.8 percent; 59,450; 27,418; and 35,759

With numbers like these, it may appear that the 90 percent “effectiveness” target is almost met. This should be easy, right?

Wrong. The immigration reform bill will fund a variety of new surveillance and detection technologies. Once they go online, these gadgets will reveal that actual effectiveness rates are much lower than previously thought. The “effective control” goal will remain far off.

Here is a likely scenario: S. 744 calls for US$3 billion to pay for additional Border Patrol agents, posts, and port-of-entry personnel, plus a new role for the National Guard. (Another $2 billion would be added if the “Border Security Goal” is not met within five years.) An additional $1.5 billion would pay for new fencing. The $3 billion would also fund new technologies, including:

  • Surveillance and detection capabilities developed or used by the Department of Defense to increase situational awareness;
  • Fixed, mobile, and agent-portable surveillance systems;
  • Unarmed, unmanned aerial systems (drones) and unarmed, fixed-wing aircraft; and
  • National Guard deployments to install and operate them.

This technology—especially the new items previously used only by the Department of Defense—is going to find far more border-crossers in areas where they’re not being detected today. But technology will not make it any easier to apprehend them.

This is the alarming conclusion of an April 4 report by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), which obtained documents about a new radar system, used by the Department of Defense in Afghanistan, that U.S. Customs and Border Protection began testing along the border in Arizona’s Tucson Sector late last year.

The VADER (Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar) system “can reveal every man, woman and child under its gaze from a height of about 25,000 feet.” This capability gave U.S. authorities a troubling result: they found that they have been missing many more crossings than they thought. According to the CIR’s report,

Between October and December, records show, the remotely operated aircraft detected 7,333 border crossers during its Arizona missions. Border Patrol agents, however, reported 410 apprehensions during that time, according to an internal agency report.

Another report that highlights what the radar system detected from October to mid-January underscores the agency’s struggle to measure results and shows conflicting numbers. Border Patrol agents apprehended 1,874 crossers that the sensor identified, but 1,962 more escaped capture.

In one week in January, for instance, the sensor detected 355 “dismounts,” or on-foot movement, on the U.S. side of the border in Arizona. Border Patrol agents caught 125 of those, about 35 percent, while an additional 141 people evaded apprehension and 87 more turned back south to Mexico. Two were unaccounted for.

The last citation, which includes “turned back” migrants, is the only one for which we can calculate an “effectiveness rate”: for that sample, it is 60.3 percent, far lower than the Tucson Sector’s 87 percent effectiveness rate cited above.

Imagine this result multiplied across the border. Deploying VADER and other technologies widely, as S. 744 proposes to do, will reveal how far from the goal of “effective control”a 90 percent effectiveness rateU.S. authorities are.

Much of what the new gadgets detect will be in the most remote, difficult to access zones: scrubland, desert, and other wilderness, often dozens of miles from roads or even the smallest population centers. Border crossers in these zones are some of the most difficult and labor intensive (and thus most costly) to apprehend. And should apprehensions increase in one “high risk” sector, making migrants’ journey more difficult there, a likely result will be a shift to remote areas in other sectors, including those not considered to be “high risk” today.

The additional $3 billion in the senators’ bill will further beef up a force that has already doubled in size since 2005 and quintupled since 1993. During those 20 years, the number of migrant apprehensions per Border Patrol agent has plummeted from 327 to 19. But even if Border Patrol were to double its staffing levels again—something S. 744 does not propose—it would still not have enough manpower to apprehend 90 percent of all detected crossers in rugged, inaccessible areas along the 1,969-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Especially since, in many cases, pursuit would have to happen on foot and in conditions of poor ground visibility, especially at night.

What happens if the 90 percent target is not met? Thankfully, S. 744 does not make its immigration provisions—like the “path to citizenship”—contingent on achieving this unrealistic goal. The “effective control” standard is not a “trigger” for the rest of the bill, as some legislators had favored.

Instead, a Southern Border Security Commission will formulate recommendations for spending another $2 billion on still more manpower and technology at the border. In the meantime, though, critics of immigration reform will loudly use every available forum to make the most of this foreseeable “failure” to meet the bill’s own stated “Border Security Goal.”


Additional resources from WOLA’s Border Security and Migration Project