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11 Oct 2012 | Commentary | News

The U.S. Presidential and Vice Presidential Candidates’ Views on U.S.-Mexico Border Security

By Ana Goerdt*

As Election Day draws closer—and with the presidential debate on foreign policy and the vice presidential debate on domestic and foreign policy just around the corner—WOLA took a look at the presidential and vice-presidential candidates’ past statements on the highly politicized issue of U.S.-Mexico border security. The candidates’ statements profiled below show their general views on securing the U.S. border with Mexico. They also illustrate that many important issues related to border security have not been addressed in the campaign.

What the Candidates Have Said…

President Barack Obama

As a Senator representing Illinois, President Obama voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006 and for the McCain-Kennedy comprehensive immigration reform bill, which—apart from regularizing the status of many undocumented immigrants—would have established specific border security benchmarks in order to measure success.

As President, Obama has overseen the continuation of the U.S.-Mexico border security buildup that began in the early 2000s. His most extensive remarks on the topic were made during a May 10, 2011 speech in El Paso, Texas that focused exclusively on border security and migration. “We have strengthened border security beyond what many believed was possible,” he said, citing the increase in Border Patrol and intelligence agents, the building of the border fence, and the deployment of drones. He scoffed at critics calling for greater measures to secure the border, alleging that they would only be satisfied by an alligator-filled moat, and went on to credit the buildup for the decrease in Mexico-U.S. migration and record levels of drug, currency, and weapon seizures:

Over the past two and a half years, we’ve seized 31 percent more drugs, 75 percent more currency, and 64 percent more weapons than before. Even as we’ve stepped up patrols, apprehensions along the border have been cut by nearly 40 percent from two years ago—that means far fewer people are attempting to cross the border illegally.

Vice President Joe Biden

Vice President Biden has not been vocal on the topic of border security in his current role. While representing Delaware in the Senate, Vice President Biden voted for the McCain-Kennedy comprehensive immigration reform bill. Like both President Obama and Rep. Ryan, he voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006. In a 2007 debate, he stated that he voted for the fence as a measure to deter drug traffickers, not migrants:

The reason I voted for the fence was that was the only alternative that was there, and I voted for the fence related to drugs … a fence will stop 20 kilos of cocaine coming through that fence. It will not stop someone climbing over it or around it.[1]

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney

Governor Romney hasn’t been particularly vocal about border security, but in various instances (such as at the Republican National Hispanic Assembly and the MSNBC Republican presidential candidate debate, both in September 2011), he has asserted that securing the border involves “completing the fence” and ensuring that there are enough “boots on the ground.” Governor Romney’s immigration plan highlights both of these priorities: “Mitt Romney will complete a high-tech fence to enhance border security … [and] will ensure that we have the officers on the ground we need to gain control of the border.” His plan for Latin America reiterates this stance: “Mitt will use the full powers of the presidency to complete an impermeable border fence protecting our southern frontier from infiltration by illegal migrants, trans-national criminal networks, and terrorists.”[2]

Representative Paul Ryan

While in Congress, Representative Ryan voted mostly along party lines on border security, but he was not particularly outspoken about the issue (a summary of his immigration/border security voting record can be found here). Most notably, he voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006 and the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. After voting for the Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2006, Rep. Ryan stated that “We need to do a better job enforcing our borders, if we are serious about national security … It’s not just a matter of people trying to cross illegally for economic reasons. Insecure borders create an opening for terrorists to enter our country.”[3]

In a notable case of voting against his party, in February 2011, Rep. Ryan supported cutting $600 million from the budget for border security and immigration enforcement:

…Last year, these agencies got double and triple digit spending increases … We cannot continue down this path of having double and triple digit spending increases on government agencies.

…And What They Haven’t Said

It’s obviously politically expedient to talk about “securing the border” and to raise the specter of terrorists, spillover violence, and waves of undocumented migrants in order to win over certain voters and garner support for current or future policies. However, several key issues in the realm of border security remain unaddressed, such as the lack of coordination between the tangled web of government agencies that operate on the U.S.-Mexico border (as illustrated here); the fact that further investments in border security will yield diminishing returns; and the humanitarian cost of the border buildup, such as the increase in migrant deaths in the Arizona desert and the abuses that migrants suffer at the hands of authorities and criminal groups on both sides of the bord
er (for statistics on these issues, see WOLA’s infographics below). [4]

Given that political campaigns are hardly known for their nuance, such questions may be too “in the weeds” for the candidates to tackle. However, political clichés about securing the border and boots on the ground can only go so far. Whoever is the head of the next administration should adopt a more nuanced view of the border by assessing the impact of years of buildup in the U.S. border security apparatus and basing future decisions on the reality of our borderlands, not just the political landscape.

*Ana Goerdt is WOLA’s Program Assistant for Mexico and Central America, Regional Security Policy, and Citizen Security.


[1] Ironically, statistics indicate that while migrant apprehensions are down, seizures of drugs have increased, indicating that drug trafficking continues unabated and has not been deterred by the fence or the buildup.

[2] Unfortunately for Governor Romney, various criticshave pointed out that the costs of building a high-tech fence would be astronomical, and as WOLA’s Border Fact Checkhas noted, building a physical fence would also be prohibitively expensive.

[3] WOLA’s Border Fact Check has examined the claim that terrorists actively attempt to penetrate the U.S.-Mexico border; both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State have stated that there is no evidence of terrorists’ targeting the United States from Mexico.

[4] It is worth mentioning that Governor Romney’s immigration plan states that “ending illegal immigration is a humanitarian issue” due to the prevalence of the abuse of migrants by human smugglers. However, there is no mention of the many other dangers that migrants face, such as being kidnapped by criminal groups in Mexico, extortion and abuse by corrupt Mexican officials, and abusive U.S. Border Patrol detention and deportation practices.