Border Fact Check

Separating Rhetoric from Reality

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Do we need more drones at the border?


  “Q: So McCaul’s [Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas)] proposal would expand the Department for Homeland Security’s drone fleet?”
  
  “A: We probably need more. Our border has over 1,200 miles, so we will definitely need more of them to provide more coverage there.”


— Translated from a September 27, 2013 Univisión Noticias interview with Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), co-chair of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus

The notion that the U.S.-Mexico border needs to increase the size of its drone fleet is a claim that has been echoed in both the House and Senate. But a 2012 audit of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) drone program found just the opposite to be true: CBP does not, in fact, need more drones.

The Facts:

According to the report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG), CBP already owns more drones than it can afford to operate. In 2012, the agency had a fleet of seven unmanned aircraft. Just to meet the “mission availability threshold” (minimum capacity), each drone would need to log 10,662 flight hours per year. To reach the operational level actually desired by CBP, the drones would need to fly 13,328 hours per year.

But the drones flew just 3,909 hours—a mere 29 percent of desired capacity.

Although bad weather was one of the listed causes for falling so short of expectations, the main reason was that CBP had vastly underestimated the amount of resources necessary to support the drone fleet.

In addition to their steep price tag, unmanned aircraft cost approximately US$3,234 to operate per flight hour and require an hour of maintenance for every hour of flight. Not having anticipated, nor planned, for these high operational costs, CBP faced a budget shortfall and was forced to shuffle $25 million from other programs just to fly the drones at a third of their capacity. The program lacks qualified staff, ground control stations and equipment, cameras, and navigation systems, among other things. Because of this, the report concluded that until CBP develops plans to meet the desired operational capacity, it recommends the postponement of additional drone purchases.

Of course, achieving this goal would come at a cost; just to increase the flight time of the current fleet to desired levels would require $43.1 million per year—or 9 percent of the entire operations, maintenance, and procurement budget for CBP’s Air and Marine Branch ($504 million).

The Department of Homeland Security plans to increase the size of its fleet to 11 by 2016, and the Senate immigration bill (S.744), were it to pass the House, would authorize yet another four drones to be used on the border. At the rate cited above, these proposals would raise the annual cost to $92.4 million.

The question of whether to purchase more drones goes beyond purely economic considerations and stretches into the territory of civil liberty concerns. The constant use of drones over U.S. soil increases the likelihood of federal government spying on the activities of U.S. citizens. Not only has CBP yet to establish explicit rules that would protect the privacy rights of citizens, but it has also flown its Predator drones on behalf of other agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, and several County Sheriff’s Offices (the names of which have been withheld from the public) over 500 times in the past three years. Although the Inspector General has severely reprimanded CBP for failing to regulate who uses the drones, and how they are used, an explicit, overarching policy has not been implemented.

Beyond economics and efficiency, the use of new surveillance technologies at the border raises a host of new concerns. Rushing to increase the number of surveillance drones over U.S. territory without first addressing the issue of privacy and civil liberty concerns puts the government at risk of encroaching on U.S. citizens’ constitutional rights yet again.

— Ashley Davis

Do we need more drones at the border?

“Q: So McCaul’s [Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas)] proposal would expand the Department for Homeland Security’s drone fleet?”

“A: We probably need more. Our border has over 1,200 miles, so we will definitely need more of them to provide more coverage there.”

Translated from a September 27, 2013 Univisión Noticias interview with Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), co-chair of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus

The notion that the U.S.-Mexico border needs to increase the size of its drone fleet is a claim that has been echoed in both the House and Senate. But a 2012 audit of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) drone program found just the opposite to be true: CBP does not, in fact, need more drones.

The Facts:

According to the report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG), CBP already owns more drones than it can afford to operate. In 2012, the agency had a fleet of seven unmanned aircraft. Just to meet the “mission availability threshold” (minimum capacity), each drone would need to log 10,662 flight hours per year. To reach the operational level actually desired by CBP, the drones would need to fly 13,328 hours per year.

But the drones flew just 3,909 hours—a mere 29 percent of desired capacity.

Although bad weather was one of the listed causes for falling so short of expectations, the main reason was that CBP had vastly underestimated the amount of resources necessary to support the drone fleet.

In addition to their steep price tag, unmanned aircraft cost approximately US$3,234 to operate per flight hour and require an hour of maintenance for every hour of flight. Not having anticipated, nor planned, for these high operational costs, CBP faced a budget shortfall and was forced to shuffle $25 million from other programs just to fly the drones at a third of their capacity. The program lacks qualified staff, ground control stations and equipment, cameras, and navigation systems, among other things. Because of this, the report concluded that until CBP develops plans to meet the desired operational capacity, it recommends the postponement of additional drone purchases.

Of course, achieving this goal would come at a cost; just to increase the flight time of the current fleet to desired levels would require $43.1 million per year—or 9 percent of the entire operations, maintenance, and procurement budget for CBP’s Air and Marine Branch ($504 million).

The Department of Homeland Security plans to increase the size of its fleet to 11 by 2016, and the Senate immigration bill (S.744), were it to pass the House, would authorize yet another four drones to be used on the border. At the rate cited above, these proposals would raise the annual cost to $92.4 million.

The question of whether to purchase more drones goes beyond purely economic considerations and stretches into the territory of civil liberty concerns. The constant use of drones over U.S. soil increases the likelihood of federal government spying on the activities of U.S. citizens. Not only has CBP yet to establish explicit rules that would protect the privacy rights of citizens, but it has also flown its Predator drones on behalf of other agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, and several County Sheriff’s Offices (the names of which have been withheld from the public) over 500 times in the past three years. Although the Inspector General has severely reprimanded CBP for failing to regulate who uses the drones, and how they are used, an explicit, overarching policy has not been implemented.

Beyond economics and efficiency, the use of new surveillance technologies at the border raises a host of new concerns. Rushing to increase the number of surveillance drones over U.S. territory without first addressing the issue of privacy and civil liberty concerns puts the government at risk of encroaching on U.S. citizens’ constitutional rights yet again.

— Ashley Davis

Filed under drones border security

3 notes

Is the border really “leaking?”

“I see the engine of this immigration ship not working. The bureaucracy is failing. But I also see on the ship that we’ve got a leak — we don’t know who is coming in and out across our borders. If you have a ship that has an engine that is not working and a leak in the bottom, what do you fix first? You fix the leak. My fear is we’re not really enforcing (immigration laws) right now.”

Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Illinois), quoted August 31, 2013.

The Facts:

In fact, we do have a good idea of who is coming in and out across our borders — or at least, a better idea than we have ever had.

1. Who is coming in:

In 2011, Border Patrol estimated that 533,571 people crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Of these, 84 percent (448,104) were either apprehended or turned back into Mexico.

It is true that Border Patrol has not regularly reported the number of migrants it estimates to have turned back or eluded capture, and no such estimates are yet publicly available for 2012. But the agency publishes decades of data on its apprehensions of migrants, a decent indicator of the overall flow of “who is coming in.”

In 2012, Border Patrol apprehended 356,873 undocumented migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border. That was up slightly from 2011, but still the second-smallest number measured since 1973. According to this indicator (as well as others like migrant surveys and testimonies from shelters), undocumented migration has plummeted rapidly. As recently as 2006, Border Patrol was routinely apprehending a million or more migrants.

image

Better technologies may reveal a larger number of migrants who evade capture, especially in remote areas. But still, using current methods the percentage of those who are apprehended appears to be growing, as a December 2012 Government Accountability Office report attests. And recidivism rates — the number of apprehended migrants who had been apprehended before — are lower than they have been since measurements began, notes the Congressional Research Service [PDF].

2. Who is coming out:

In eight of the past ten years, including 2012, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) set a new record for the number of undocumented individuals removed [PDF] from the United States. Last year ICE totaled 409,849 removals, up from 165,168 a decade earlier and 43,671 in 1992.

If past years’ proportions are a guide, about two-thirds (perhaps 275,000) of these removed individuals came from Mexico and Central America. Add the number of individuals returned by Border Patrol last year (likely between 250,000 and 300,000), and you get over 525,000 undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America “coming out” of the United States.

That is quite similar to the 533,571 people whom Border Patrol estimated to have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in 2011. With almost the same numbers going “out” as are going “in,” the “leak” to which Rep. Hultgren refers is actually a net of about zero migrants. In fact, after reaching a 40-year low, it could even be seeping outward.

Estimates of the population living here illegally bear that out. It has been declining, from a high of 12.4 million people in 2007 to 11.1 million in 2011.

3. We are “enforcing immigration laws right now.”

In fact, immigration laws are being enforced far more strongly than they ever have. In 2012, CRS reports [PDF], 86 percent of apprehended migrants had to go through some sort of “consequence delivery” (criminal trial, lateral repatriation, formal deportation proceeding, or others) instead of being voluntarily returned. Only 14 percent were voluntarily returned. As recently as 2005, 77 percent were voluntarily returned.

Source: Congressional Research Service (PDF)

We can and should debate the effectiveness, and the humaneness, of these “consequence delivery” measures. But it’s impossible to dispute that they — and “immigration laws” in general — are not being “enforced right now.”

— Adam Isacson

Filed under migration border security statistics

2 notes

Is a “surge” in National Guard troops an effective way to secure the border?

“…There’s also another resource that’s coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and that’s our men and women in uniform, specifically our members of the National Guard. There’s already been reports of them being engaged working along the border in several areas… the ‘surge’ concept is exactly what we were thinking—it was successful in Iraq, Afghanistan, apparently it’s been successful on the border.”

-Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Mississippi), July 23, 2013

During a recent hearing on border security, Rep. Palazzo of Mississippi floated the idea of deploying members of the National Guard to secure the border. But have these types of “surges” along the border been successful?

The facts:

While it’s true that National Guard troops have been sent to the U.S.-Mexico border to assist Customs and Border Protection personnel, experience tells us that such deployments are an inefficient use of resources.

From 2006 to 2008, the Bush administration deployed 6,000 National Guard troops to the border in Operation Jump Start. In 2010, 1,200 National Guardsmen were deployed to the border under the auspices of Operation Phalanx. It’s important to note that Operation Jump Start and Operation Phalanx were not meant to be border security game-changers. Rather, both were considered stopgap measures to provide temporary personnel “bridges” until the Border Patrol could complete the training of thousands of new agents.

In fact, Guardsmen along the border were (and continue to be) limited in their duties: by order of the Department of Defense, they are not allowed to be involved in the direct detention, search, or arrest of individuals. A September 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office voiced concern over citizens’ perceptions of increased border militarization; the fact that temporary National Guard deployments make it difficult to formulate a long-term border security strategy; and the cost effectiveness of the deployments. The Washington Post noted that as of December 2011,

"The 1,200 National Guard troops have helped Border Patrol agents apprehend 25,514 illegal immigrants at a cost of $160 million — or $6,271 for each person caught… [T]he National Guard is credited with helping law enforcement seize 83,629 pounds of marijuana in the past 16 months. That is about 2.6 percent of the tons of pot seized each year along the southwestern border."

As criticism of Operation Phalanx mounted and budget pressures increased, in March 2012 the Obama administration reduced the number of National Guard troops on the border from 1,200 to 300. Under Operation Nimbus, the remaining troops’ mission shifted from ground surveillance to aerial surveillance – “boots in the sky” instead of “boots on the ground.”

While talk of “surges” may play well to certain political audiences, the high price tags and relative lack of results of Operations Jump Start and Phalanx make it clear that the National Guard is not a silver bullet for border security.

-Ana Goerdt

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What is the real cost of an additional 20,000 Border Patrol agents?

"This proposal is a realistic and measured approach that will finally solve one of the most difficult problems facing our broken immigration system."

— Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada), June 21, 2013

The Congressional Budget Office Cost Estimate for the immigration bill calculates that adding 3,500 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents as proposed in the current version of the legislation would exceed $600 million annually – that’s around $171,400 per agent per year. Assuming Border Patrol agents cost about the same as all CBP officers, increasing the number of agents by 20,000, as is proposed in the Corker-Hoeven amendment, would cost over $3.4 billion a year. Over the next decade, this increase would amount to over $34 billion. This yearly cost for additional agents is close to the Border Patrol’s current annual budget and far exceeds the $6 billion the CBO calculated for the 10-year cost of a much smaller staff increase.

In a time of sequester, where $85 billion in automatic budget cuts are dramatically reducing afterschool programs, food pantries, and meal programs for the sick and elderly; eliminating thousands of jobs for teachers and emergency response personnel; and even limiting the Border Patrol’s capacity to deploy agents for road patrols, we question whether such a dramatic increase in border security spending, with questionable endgame results, is a good use of the U.S. budget.

—Maureen Meyer

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Is Doubling Border Patrol (Again) a Wise Use of Border Security Resources?


  "This is border security on steroids."


— Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), remarking on an amendment to immigration reform legislation (S. 744) that he and Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) are introducing in the U.S. Senate.

The Corker amendment would roughly double the size of U.S. Border Patrol to about 40,000 members. Is that a wise use of funds?

The Facts:

Border Patrol has already doubled in size [PDF] since 2005, and quintupled in size since 1993. There were 9,891 agents stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2005; by the end of 2012 there were 18,516.

Meanwhile, border crossings are way down. In 2000, Border Patrol agents apprehended [PDF] 1,643,679 people near the U.S.-Mexico border. By last year, that number had dropped to 356,873.

As the agency grew and border-crossers dropped, the number of “apprehensions per agent” has fallen to historic lows. In 2000 each Border Patrol agent at the U.S.-Mexico border apprehended an average of 192 border-crossers. By 2012 the average was 19 apprehensions per agent.

Given this remarkable drop, is not clear how much more a further doubling of Border Patrol would achieve. Dropping the ratio to 10 apprehensions per agent per year would be a small gain for such a great expense.

That expense would be immense. If we very conservatively estimate the cost of maintaining a Border Patrol officer (salary, benefits, training, vehicles, fuel, uniforms, etc.) at US$100,000 per year, then 20,000 new agents would cost the U.S. Treasury US$2 billion per year. (The agency’s current budget [PDF] is about US$3.5 billion.)

An additional US$2 billion per year is far more money than the current Senate immigration reform bill contemplates spending. S.744 foresees up to US$6.5 billion total, to be spent over five-plus years, in new border security funds.

Given these apprehension and staffing trends, doubling Border Patrol does not appear to be the most efficient use of an additional US$2 billion per year.

"For people who are concerned about border security, once they see what’s in this bill, it’s almost overkill," Sen. Corker said today. We agree with that, except for the “almost.”

—Adam Isacson

Is Doubling Border Patrol (Again) a Wise Use of Border Security Resources?

"This is border security on steroids."

— Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), remarking on an amendment to immigration reform legislation (S. 744) that he and Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) are introducing in the U.S. Senate.

The Corker amendment would roughly double the size of U.S. Border Patrol to about 40,000 members. Is that a wise use of funds?

The Facts:

Border Patrol has already doubled in size [PDF] since 2005, and quintupled in size since 1993. There were 9,891 agents stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2005; by the end of 2012 there were 18,516.

Meanwhile, border crossings are way down. In 2000, Border Patrol agents apprehended [PDF] 1,643,679 people near the U.S.-Mexico border. By last year, that number had dropped to 356,873.

As the agency grew and border-crossers dropped, the number of “apprehensions per agent” has fallen to historic lows. In 2000 each Border Patrol agent at the U.S.-Mexico border apprehended an average of 192 border-crossers. By 2012 the average was 19 apprehensions per agent.

Given this remarkable drop, is not clear how much more a further doubling of Border Patrol would achieve. Dropping the ratio to 10 apprehensions per agent per year would be a small gain for such a great expense.

That expense would be immense. If we very conservatively estimate the cost of maintaining a Border Patrol officer (salary, benefits, training, vehicles, fuel, uniforms, etc.) at US$100,000 per year, then 20,000 new agents would cost the U.S. Treasury US$2 billion per year. (The agency’s current budget [PDF] is about US$3.5 billion.)

An additional US$2 billion per year is far more money than the current Senate immigration reform bill contemplates spending. S.744 foresees up to US$6.5 billion total, to be spent over five-plus years, in new border security funds.

Given these apprehension and staffing trends, doubling Border Patrol does not appear to be the most efficient use of an additional US$2 billion per year.

"For people who are concerned about border security, once they see what’s in this bill, it’s almost overkill," Sen. Corker said today. We agree with that, except for the “almost.”

—Adam Isacson

Filed under Border Security U.S. Congress

0 notes

Is the Cornyn Amendment’s Border Security Standard a “Poison Pill” for Immigration Reform?

"The Secretary [of Homeland Security] may not adjust the status of aliens who have been granted registered provisional immigrant status… until … the Secretary has achieved and maintained operational control of the Southern border for the 12-month period immediately preceding such certification. …

"The term 'operational control' means that, within each and every sector of the Southern border, a condition exists in which there is an effectiveness rate, informed by situational awareness, of not lower than 90 percent. …

"The term 'effectiveness rate' means a metric, informed by situational awareness, that measures the percentage calculated by dividing—
(A) the number of illegal border crossers who are apprehended or turned back during a fiscal year … by
(B) the total number of illegal entries in the sector during such fiscal year.”

—From the text of Senate Amendment 1251 to S.744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, proposed yesterday by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and 15 other Republican Party senators.

As it considers a sweeping immigration reform, the full U.S. Senate is expected to debate and vote on the Cornyn amendment today. Known as the “Requiring Enforcement, Security and safety while Upgrading Lawful Trade and travel Simultaneously (RESULTS)” provision, this amendment would tighten the so-called “trigger”: a border security threshold that must first be met in order for undocumented migrants to attain legal status.

In plain English: both the existing immigration reform bill and the Cornyn amendment are gauging border security using a measure that they call an “effectiveness rate.” To calculate it, they look at the number of border-crossers that U.S. authorities apprehend, the number who they “turn back” across the border, and the number whom they believe “got away.” Both the bill and the amendment call for a 90 percent effectiveness rate. To achieve this threshold, the number of “got aways” would have to be less than 10 percent of the total number of detected border-crossers.

If this 90 percent threshold is not met within five years, the current Senate bill would require a special Southern Border Security Commission to make recommendations for policy changes. An additional US$2 billion in border security funds (over an initial US$4.5 billion) would be available to implement the commission’s recommendations. If the 90 percent goal is not met, immigrants seeking to legalize their status would not be affected.

Under the Cornyn amendment, if the 90 percent threshold is not met, immigrants will not be allowed to exit their temporary “provisional immigrant” status and embark on the “path to citizenship.”

Some Democrats call this amendment a “poison pill" — a requirement that sets such a high border-security standard that it achieves what they believe to be the amendment’s authors’ real goal: blocking the "path to citizenship" for currently undocumented migrants.

The Facts:

The border security “trigger” argument hinges on whether the 90 percent “effectiveness rate” is a reasonable standard.

In 2011, statistics from a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report reveal, the effectiveness rate was 84 percent. The illustration shows where the Border Patrol’s nine sectors stood that year (click to enlarge).

The Senate bill would increase spending on border security. Even more law enforcement presence along the border could increase apprehensions, which might appear to bring the 90 percent “effectiveness” goal within reach.

But the new security spending will also include investment in new technologies that, ironically, could make the 90 percent goal more elusive than ever.

A host of new sensors, cameras, drones, radars, and other imagery and detection equipment — some of it developed for Defense Department use in Iraq and Afghanistan — could find a great deal more border crossers who currently go undetected, especially in remote, rural areas. U.S. agencies’ new gadgets may tell them that the number of “got aways” is greater than they thought. That was the experience of an early 2013 test run of VADER, a Defense Department radar system, in Arizona. According to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, VADER revealed an “effectiveness rate” in Tucson many percentage points lower than the official number.

With technology revealing more “got-aways” than previously thought, the 90 percent threshold could be farther off, not closer. Meanwhile, heightened border security may drive border-crossers to even more remote areas, where actually being on the scene and apprehending people is hardest. Note the conditions right now in the massive Big Bend sector of west Texas, which registered a small number of migrants but the lowest “effectiveness rate” — 68 percent — of all sectors in 2011. Because Big Bend is far from any population centers, it may never become the number-one destination for migrants. But because it is so empty and difficult to patrol, there is still room for massive growth here, and in the neighboring Del Rio sector, if a crackdown succeeds elsewhere.

A look at the numbers, recent geographical migration trends, and the likely impact of better detection technologies leads us to conclude that the 90 percent threshold is unlikely to be met across the entire U.S.-Mexico border. As a result, the Cornyn amendment would probably put the “path to citizenship” out of reach.

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Border Security Migration immigration reform U.S. Congress

1 note

Has “lacking border security” led to a halt in commerce or a spillover of violence at the border?


  “Less than 10 years ago, a trip from my home state across the border to Nuevo Laredo, one of several Mexican border cities, was routine. As a result, commerce and culture flowed across the border, benefiting both countries. Today, after years of lacking border security efforts, such travel is almost unthinkable. Sadly, the border has turned into a magnet for spillover violence from Central American drug cartels.”


— Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, in an April 23 op-ed published in Roll Call.

Rep. McCaul is correct that organized crime-related violence in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, has diminished travel to that city. Our own interviews with business, social and law enforcement leaders in Laredo, Texas found that it had been years since most had crossed the river into Nuevo Laredo.

But the Congressman, whose Austin-area district lies 250 miles from the border, leaves an incorrect impression that cross-border commerce has stopped, and that Nuevo Laredo’s violence is spilling over the border into the United States.

The Facts:

Cross-border commerce is busier than ever. According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, in fiscal year 2011 U.S. goods and services trade with Mexico totaled $500 billion. U.S. exports across the border are up 77.6 percent since 2000, while imports are up 93.4 percent.

According to the Department of Justice, Laredo-Nuevo Laredo is the busiest inland port in the nation, “handling more freight than all the U.S. ports of entry to its west combined.” More than 700 of the Fortune 1,000 companies do international business via Laredo and “more than 9,000 trucks cross through town per day along with 1,800 loaded rail cars.”

The violence in Nuevo Laredo, meanwhile, is not spilling over, according to national crime statistics and local law enforcement.

According to police in Laredo, “violent crime is down and spillover from drug-war violence in Mexico is minimal.” Laredo (population 241,000) experienced 10 homicides in 2012.

Its violent crime rate in 2011, the last year for which full data were available (464.6 crimes per 100,000 inhabitants), while higher than the national average, is less than half that of Houston, and lower than San Antonio or Dallas. Laredo’s violent crime rate is only a shade higher than Austin (430.1 crimes per 100,000 inhabitants), the largest city within Rep. McCaul’s district. In fact, of the 32 Texas cities with 100,000-plus population in 2011, none of the four border cities was among the top 10 most violent (see graphic above).

Statistics show a similar lack of spillover along the border. Throughout the United States, the FBI Uniform Crime Report estimated a violent crime rate of 386.3 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011. The same data available that year for counties touching the border showed an average of 268.3 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants. Border counties experienced 118 fewer violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants than the country as a whole.

— Adam Isacson (with research assistance from WOLA Intern Elizabeth Glusman)
 

Has “lacking border security” led to a halt in commerce or a spillover of violence at the border?

“Less than 10 years ago, a trip from my home state across the border to Nuevo Laredo, one of several Mexican border cities, was routine. As a result, commerce and culture flowed across the border, benefiting both countries. Today, after years of lacking border security efforts, such travel is almost unthinkable. Sadly, the border has turned into a magnet for spillover violence from Central American drug cartels.”

— Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, in an April 23 op-ed published in Roll Call.

Rep. McCaul is correct that organized crime-related violence in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, has diminished travel to that city. Our own interviews with business, social and law enforcement leaders in Laredo, Texas found that it had been years since most had crossed the river into Nuevo Laredo.

But the Congressman, whose Austin-area district lies 250 miles from the border, leaves an incorrect impression that cross-border commerce has stopped, and that Nuevo Laredo’s violence is spilling over the border into the United States.

The Facts:

Cross-border commerce is busier than ever. According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, in fiscal year 2011 U.S. goods and services trade with Mexico totaled $500 billion. U.S. exports across the border are up 77.6 percent since 2000, while imports are up 93.4 percent.

According to the Department of Justice, Laredo-Nuevo Laredo is the busiest inland port in the nation, “handling more freight than all the U.S. ports of entry to its west combined.” More than 700 of the Fortune 1,000 companies do international business via Laredo and “more than 9,000 trucks cross through town per day along with 1,800 loaded rail cars.”

The violence in Nuevo Laredo, meanwhile, is not spilling over, according to national crime statistics and local law enforcement.

According to police in Laredo, “violent crime is down and spillover from drug-war violence in Mexico is minimal.” Laredo (population 241,000) experienced 10 homicides in 2012.

Its violent crime rate in 2011, the last year for which full data were available (464.6 crimes per 100,000 inhabitants), while higher than the national average, is less than half that of Houston, and lower than San Antonio or Dallas. Laredo’s violent crime rate is only a shade higher than Austin (430.1 crimes per 100,000 inhabitants), the largest city within Rep. McCaul’s district. In fact, of the 32 Texas cities with 100,000-plus population in 2011, none of the four border cities was among the top 10 most violent (see graphic above).

Statistics show a similar lack of spillover along the border. Throughout the United States, the FBI Uniform Crime Report estimated a violent crime rate of 386.3 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011. The same data available that year for counties touching the border showed an average of 268.3 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants. Border counties experienced 118 fewer violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants than the country as a whole.

— Adam Isacson (with research assistance from WOLA Intern Elizabeth Glusman)  

Filed under Border Security Spillover U.S. Congress

1 note

Would more technology make the border more secure than it is today?

“Many of my colleagues say, ‘Why do we need to do anything more on the border?’ and we do. We should do more. … What I learned today is we have adequate manpower, but not adequate technology.”

– Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, while visiting the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona on March 27.

Sen. Schumer is one of the “gang of eight” senators who are expected to be submitting legislation within the next several days for a sweeping proposed immigration reform.

That proposal may delay changes to U.S. immigration procedures – such as a “path to citizenship” for currently undocumented migrants – until something is first done on border security. That “something” is likely to be a commitment to intensify the past ten years’ large-scale buildup in the U.S. border security apparatus.

Sen. Schumer’s comments indicate that instead of further increasing manpower – the Border Patrol has doubled since 2005, and quintupled since 1993 [PDF] – this new proposed buildup may focus on technology: sensors, drones, imagery, radar, cameras, communications and similar items along the border.

The Facts:

More technology would give U.S. border security personnel a fuller picture of what is happening at the border, in particular who is crossing. But it will also reveal, in sharp focus, how remarkably difficult the border is to secure.

The challenge is what law-enforcement officials often call the “endgame”: the act of bringing personnel to the place where something illegal is happening, and arresting those responsible. On its own, better technology will not ease the endgame.

An analogy is Central America, where U.S. military and Coast Guard assets use radars, aircraft and imagery to follow boats or aircraft suspected of trafficking drugs. Too often, the U.S. technology gets used simply to film traffickers calmly unloading bales of cargo in remote areas of places like eastern Honduras, where there is almost no government presence and little likelihood that authorities will confront them. The remarkable U.S. technology can capture this on video, but with no personnel on the ground, it can do little more than film it.

At the U.S.-Mexico border, something similar may happen in the vast stretches of desert and scrubland that improved U.S. technology would monitor. The new gadgets may find far more border crossers than were previously believed to exist. But they would do little to ease apprehensions.

A very illustrative example comes from an April 4 report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, which obtained documents about a new radar system, used by the Defense Department in Afghanistan, that U.S. Customs and Border Protection began testing along the border in Arizona late last year.

The VADER (Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar) system gave U.S. authorities a troubling result: they found that they have been missing many more crossings than they thought.

“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.”

The VADER data showed Border Patrol apprehending well under half of the total number of illegal border crossers. This is much poorer than the pre-VADER results Border Patrol had claimed in a February U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which found a 5-to-1 ratio of apprehensions to “got-aways” in the Tuscon sector in 2011.

It is not clear, then, whether more technology would help to secure the border, or whether it would merely show authorities more of what they are missing.

High-tech equipment can monitor remote zones that are hours from the nearest Border Patrol stations and miles from the nearest roads. But even if Border Patrol were to double its staffing levels again, it would still not have enough manpower to carry out endgame operations in all of these 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.

In the best of cases, improved technology would help Border Patrol and other U.S. law enforcement agencies respond more quickly to increased crossings in new areas. This would require it to transfer its personnel across sectors much more frequently, a significant hardship to agents with families and roots in their current communities. (Right now, Border Patrol is slow to redeploy personnel. Among its nine Mexico border sectors, its very quiet El Paso sector continues to have the second-highest number of agents.) It would also mean a far greater number of agents spending longer periods in rustic “forward operating bases” in the wilderness, closer to the suspicious activity detected by high-tech sensors.

More technology might help U.S. agencies reorient their resources more nimbly than they do now. But it would not be a panacea for border security. If anything, it would highlight the extreme difficulty of the “endgame.”

– Adam Isacson

Filed under border security border patrol

0 notes

Is the prospect of immigration reform doubling the rate of migrant border crossings?

“We’ve seen the number of illegal aliens double, maybe even triple since amnesty talk started happening.”

— Unnamed Border Patrol agent to Townhall, July 20, 2012

The past few months have seen several claims that the possibility of immigration reform providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants would result in a significant increase in migrants seeking to enter the United States illegally.

The Facts:

The Border Patrol does not release its statistics about undocumented migrants it has apprehended—which the agency is currently using as its main border security indicator—until after the end of each fiscal year. Without this data, it is difficult assess whether or not there has been a spike in border crossings in recent months due to the possibility of immigration reform.

While U.S. agencies do not release monthly statistics, the Mexican government’s National Institute for Migration (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) does release monthly reports on the number of Mexicans whom U.S. authorities have repatriated back to their home country. During January and February 2013, INM received 54,818 Mexican nationals at its ports of entry in Mexico’s five border states. For the same two months in 2012, INM received 60,804, almost 6,000 more migrants than the current year. The number of Mexicans repatriated so far in 2013 is also significantly lower than the 66,711 reported for the first two months of 2011.

This drop in the number of repatriated Mexicans is also in line with the downward trend in Border Patrol apprehensions of Mexican nationals that we have seen since FY2006.

While fewer Mexican migrants are attempting to cross the border, the same cannot be said for Central American migrants, who continue to be willing to face multiple dangers, such as extortion and kidnapping, while crossing through Mexico in search of a better life in the United States. Border Patrol apprehensions of “other than Mexicans” (OTMs, the vast majority of which are Central Americans) doubled between FY 2011 and FY2012, when 94,532 OTMs were apprehended. INM statistics on Central Americans repatriated out of Mexico also show a slight increase in the first two months of 2013 compared to the same period for 2012.

Based on this information, if the number of Mexican migrants remained the same, there would have to be a staggering increase in Central Americans for border crossings to have doubled. U.S. authorities would need to have apprehended as many Central Americans as Mexicans in January and February of this year—around 55,000—something that has never happened. 55,000 apprehensions of Central Americans in two months would be equal to more than half of all of the OTMs the Border Patrol apprehended in all twelve months of FY2012, and it would mean that the FY2013 total would be on track to reach 330,000 apprehensions of OTMs—a 349 percent increase over last year. It is extremely unlikely that there has been such a dramatic increase in crossings by Central American migrants in the space of a few months. Thus, it is most unlikely that claims of a “doubling” of undocumented migration are true.

— Maureen Meyer

1 note

Are citizens who leave water in the desert encouraging migrants or meeting a humanitarian need?

“[Tucson Sector Border Patrol Agent Colleen] Agle said smugglers often lie to immigrants, telling them they’ll only walk a couple of hours when they actually walk for days. Even so, the agency discourages water stations for crossers because authorities say it encourages people to risk the journey.”

— Amanda Lee Myers and Julie Watson, “Migrants say Arizona worth risk of crossing,” Associated Press, August 31, 2010

Border Patrol agents in south Texas have welcomed efforts to leave water out for migrants, in order to stem a rapid increase in the number of people dying on U.S. soil from dehydration. “Anytime someone can do something proactively like this it is great, Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley sector spokesman Henry Mendiola told Fox News Latino in January. “These are human lives we’re talking about.”

In Arizona, however, things are very different. Border Patrol agents interviewed by WOLA echoed the arguments in the quotes above. They contend that leaving water for migrants increases incentives for migration, and that much of the water ends up being used by smugglers. Arizona activist groups have resorted to leaving hidden cameras near their water stations, which have captured Border Patrol agents destroying water jugs.

The Facts:

A team from the University of Arizona published an extensive study last week that shows migrants’ need for water is desperate.

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To produce In the Shadow of the Wall (PDF), Jeremy Slack, Daniel Martínez, Scott Whiteford, and Emily Peiffer led a team that surveyed 1,113 recent deportees in five Mexican border cities, as well as in Mexico City, between 2010 and 2012.

They found that dangerous journeys, with a very real risk of death from dehydration, are exceedingly common in places like southern Arizona and south Texas.

“Three quarters [of those surveyed - 72%] relied on a ‘coyote’ or human smuggler to get into the United States, agreeing to pay a median of 2,500 USD for their services. They walked for more than two days through the harsh conditions along the border. Thirty-nine percent ran out of water during their trip and 31% ran out of food. The extreme heat and harsh terrain where people cross has killed thousands of people.”

With two out of five migrants running out of water in the desert, the volunteers who leave it for them may be keeping many human beings from avoiding the fate of the 463 migrants whose remains Border Patrol counted [PDF] on the U.S. side of the border in 2012.

Dehydration and hunger are not the only dangers that the University of Arizona study revealed to be alarmingly common. Of those surveyed:

  • 12 percent were robbed by bandits during their last crossing.
  • 7 percent were kidnapped (83 out of 1,113; of these, 29 were kidnapped in the United States).
  • 6 people witnessed rape.
  • 2 people witnessed murders.
  • 12 percent witnessed some form of violence against female migrants.
  • 17 percent were victims of “cyber kidnappings,” defined as “where people call with false claims about having kidnapped a family member to extort a ransom.”

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Mexico Migration Border Patrol

0 notes

Is “Operation Streamline” being carried out in a way that respects due process?

“Operation Streamline, a fast-track program, resolves a federal criminal case with prison and deportation consequences in approximately two days or less. This program can serve as a deterrent against future illegal immigration in existing Border Patrol sectors.” — Sen. Chuck Grassley, May 17 2011.

Captured migrants who are sent to “Operation Streamline” enter the federal criminal court system, where they are processed very quickly. Normally about 40-80 migrants stand trial at a time, with guilty verdicts rapidly issued. Many receive prison sentences, usually of a few months’ duration. Supporters of the program, which began in 2005, dismiss charges that these speedy mass trials violate due process rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The Facts:

A team from the University of Arizona published an extensive study last week raising important concerns about due process in Operation Streamline. They find defendants are rarely informed about their rights, and are often advised by their own court-appointed defense lawyers to accept the charges against them.

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To produce In the Shadow of the Wall (PDF), Jeremy Slack, Daniel Martínez, Scott Whiteford, and Emily Peiffer led a team that surveyed 1,113 recent deportees in five Mexican border cities, as well as in Mexico City, between 2010 and 2012.

They found that “Streamlined” deportees — 32 percent of those surveyed — were usually left in the dark about their legal rights.

“When asked ‘what did your lawyer inform you about your rights?’ only 40% mentioned some sort of basic legal right such as the right to silence or a fair trial. Forty percent stated that their lawyer simply informed them they needed to sign their deportation and plead guilty. Nine percent reported that their lawyers did not tell them anything. Only 2% reported being informed that they could denounce abuses and 1% (3 people) stated that the lawyer checked for legal migration options due to family connections, which is generally the first and most important duty of any immigration attorney.”

In addition, of “Streamlined” deportees, 92 percent said they were shackled at the wrists, waist, and ankles during the Operation Streamline process. Their median time spent in shackles was six hours. Thirty-eight percent of them were sent to a detention center. Eight percent reported being threatened by other inmates.

The University of Arizona study recommends ending Operation Streamline. It says Streamline “represents a violation of the U.S. Constitution by trying people in masse rather than as individuals.”

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Mexico Migration Immigration

16 notes

How common or rare is abuse of migrants in U.S. custody?

How common or rare is abuse of migrants in U.S. custody?

“The Department of Homeland Security claims that only three complaints were lodged against Border Patrol detention conditions for the entirety of 2010 (the most current data), a year when agents apprehended more than 463,000 individuals. Only 10 complaints were filed for ‘abuse of authority’ that year and 13 for ‘discrimination.’ … Customs and Border Patrol in Washington responded in even more general terms: ‘CBP stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission,’ an agency spokesperson said by email. ‘We do not tolerate abuse within our ranks, and … we are fully committed to protecting the health, safety and human rights of all individuals with whom we interact.’” — John Carlos Frey, “Cruelty on the Border,” Salon.com, July 20, 2012

The Facts:

Non-governmental groups have already documented what appears to be a far more widespread problem of migrant abuse while in the custody of U.S. authorities. Last week, a team from the University of Arizona published an extensive study adding new evidence.

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To produce In the Shadow of the Wall (PDF), Jeremy Slack, Daniel Martínez, Scott Whiteford, and Emily Peiffer led a team that surveyed 1,113 recent deportees in five Mexican border cities, as well as in Mexico City, between 2010 and 2012.

Of those surveyed:

  • 11 percent reported physical abuse by U.S. authorities.
  • 23 percent reported verbal abuse by U.S. authorities.
  • 45 percent did not receive sufficient food while in U.S. custody.
  • 39 percent had possessions taken and not returned by U.S. authorities.
  • 26 percent were carrying Mexican identifying documents and had at least one document taken and not returned.

On the other hand, 57 percent of deportees surveyed said that “everyone” or “the majority” of Border Patrol agents “treated me with respect” Twenty-nine percent said “about half of them treated me with respect.” Still, these numbers are indicative of more than just a few “bad apples.”

The University of Arizona study recommends a series of measures that Border Patrol and other agencies should take to review their use-of-force guidelines and to improve mechanisms for transparency and dealing with abuse complaints. These include reexamining internal affairs procedures, improving training programs, establishing a chain of custody for migrants’ possessions, and reevaluating legal procedures to ensure migrants know what they are signing.

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Mexico Migration Border security Border Patrol human rights

0 notes

Does deporting migrants far from where they were apprehended deter them from trying to cross again?

“ATEP [the Alien Transfer Exit Program] is an ongoing program whereby the Office of Border Patrol, in collaboration with ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), moves Mexican nationals apprehended in one Border Patrol Sector to another ERO Area of Responsibility before removing them to Mexico. ATEP breaks the smuggling cycle by repatriating aliens into regions further east or west of their entry location and, thus, preventing them from immediately coordinating with their smugglers for re-entry.” — Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, congressional testimony, May 3, 2011

The ATEP program deports tens of thousands of migrants each year to Mexican border cities hundreds or thousands of miles from where they were apprehended. Critics of the program claim that it routinely separates families, and endangers migrants by dropping them off — often in the middle of the night — in unfamiliar border cities dominated by organized-crime groups who prey upon or even seek to recruit them. Defenders of ATEP say that these “lateral transfers” deter migrants from attempting to cross again.

The Facts:

A team from the University of Arizona has published an extensive study this week raising important concerns about the ATEP program. They find that the program rarely discourages repeat border crossings.

image

To produce In the Shadow of the Wall (PDF), Jeremy Slack, Daniel Martínez, Scott Whiteford, and Emily Peiffer led a team that surveyed 1,113 recent deportees in five Mexican border cities, as well as in Mexico City, between 2010 and 2012.

Their surveys lead them to conclude that ATEP “appears to have no impact on whether or not people will cross again.” In an e-mail communication, study co-author Daniel Martínez told WOLA that the 18 percent of surveyed deportees who were repatriated far from their point of apprehension were just as likely as other deportees to say they intended to attempt the crossing again.

“People who go through ATEP actually report intending to cross again at a higher rate than people who do not (31% of those processed through ATEP intend to cross within a week, compared to 24% of those who were not laterally repatriated). However, after one controls for various factors, the effect of ATEP on future crossings in not statistically significant. Ultimately, I can confidently say that ATEP does not influence future crossing decisions.”

The study also notes that of all deportees (including non-ATEP deportees), fully 18 percent were dropped off in Mexican border cities between the hours of 10:00PM and 5:00AM, a time when all basic services are closed and public security conditions are worst. Many of these night deportations are part of a surprising recent “increase in deportation to Mexico’s northeastern border where drug fueled violence has had a huge impact on migrants.”

The study recommends ending ATEP and ceasing night deportations.

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Mexico Migration Border Patrol Border Security

0 notes

Are most deportees recent arrivals with criminal records, or longtime residents leaving behind relatives?

“My instructions to the Department of Homeland Security have been that we have to focus our attention, our enforcement, on people who genuinely pose a threat to our communities, not to hardworking families who are minding their own business and oftentimes have members of their family who are U.S. citizens — because that’s a — that’s a priority in terms of limited enforcement resources. … So more than half of our enforcement now is directed at people with criminal records. Of the remaining half, about two-thirds are actually people who are typically apprehended close to the border, so these are not people who have longstanding roots in our community.”

— President Barack Obama, Univision interview, September 20, 2012

The Facts:

A team from the University of Arizona has published an extensive study this week that casts doubt on the President’s affirmation. In fact, they find, the past few years’ record levels of deportations heavily affect “established” migrants who are separated from family members — many of whom are U.S. citizens.

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To produce In the Shadow of the Wall (PDF), Jeremy Slack, Daniel Martínez, Scott Whiteford, and Emily Peiffer led a team that surveyed 1,113 recent deportees in five Mexican border cities, as well as in Mexico City, between 2010 and 2012. These cities accounted for 66 percent of all repatriations to Mexico in 2011.

They found that deportees with “longstanding roots in our community,” to use the President’s phrase, are common.

“Three quarters [74 percent] of deportees had previously lived or worked in the United States. Among those who had lived or worked in the United States, the median time spent in the country was seven years.”

The University of Arizona team found a disturbingly high incidence of family separation.

“Half [51 percent] had at least one family member who was a U.S. citizen, and nearly one in four [22 percent] had at least one child under the age of 18 who had U.S. citizenship.”

“This is a strikingly different portrait of deportees than the common conception of seasonal laborers and young single men with no real ties to the United States,” the study reminds us. It dovetails strongly with statistics released in April 2012, which showed that 22 percent of those deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the first half of 2011 — 46,486 people — were parents of U.S. citizen children.

With so many deportees forced to leave spouses and children behind, it should not be surprising that neither the deportation experience nor heightened border security is dissuading them from attempting to return. When asked whether they planned to cross back into the United States in the future, 56 percent of recent deportees said “yes.” Twenty-five percent said they would attempt the journey within the next week.

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Migration Mexico deportation family separation

0 notes

Are border drones too costly to fly?

“I was surprised, and frankly disappointed, to learn that the Border Patrol has four drones deployed in Arizona but only has the resources to fly two of them — and even then they cannot fly them every day of the week.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware), chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, at a March 14, 2013 hearing.

The Facts:

Perhaps even more surprising is the cost involved with operating a drone like the four MQ-9 Predator-B aircraft currently stationed at Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista, Arizona.

“For Fiscal Year 2010, DHS reported that its Predator B (a variant of DOD’s Reaper) costs approximately $3,234 per flight hour,” the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2011. “This is the total direct and indirect cost, including fuel, maintenance, support services, and labor.”

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Another three unmanned aircraft (two Predator-Bs and a Predator-B maritime variant) are currently patrolling the eastern part of the border from bases at Naval Station Corpus Christi, Texas and Cape Canaveral, Florida.

According to the Department of Homeland Security Inspector-General [PDF], the seven drones’ “desired capability” would be to operate for 13,328 flight hours per year. At the per-hour cost cited above, this would require US$43.1 million per year. That alone would equal about 9 percent of the entire operations, maintenance, and procurement budget for Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine branch (US$504 million), which employs 271 aircraft and 301 vessels throughout the United States and elsewhere in the world.

The Department of Homeland Security has declared its intention to increase the southwest border drone fleet to 11 by 2016. At this same rate, this would push the yearly cost to US$67.7 million.

Because they are so costly to operate, these drones may spend a lot of time on the ground over the next few years. It would seem that some of this is a result of a miscalculation by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which has bought more drones than it can afford to operate. “CBP had not adequately planned for resources needed to support the current unmanned aircraft inventory,” notes the 2012 report [PDF] from the DHS Inspector-General, which adds that “CBP has not ensured that adequate resources are available to effectively operate its unmanned aircraft.”

The drones’ performance on the border, meanwhile, has been modest so far in terms of drugs seized or migrants detected: “The amount of illicit drugs seized in Predator raids is ‘not impressive,’” Michael Kostelnik, the head of CBP Air and Marine, told the Los Angeles Times in 2012.

The problem is likely to worsen this year as CBP — the large DHS agency of which the Air and Marine Branch is one part — is seeing its budget cut by about 5 percent, or US$512 million, as a result of sequestration.

An interesting final note: while Sen. Carper (who has a lifetime 87/100 “liberal” rating from Americans for Democratic Action) pushed at the March 14 hearing for more drones at the border, it was the Committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma, with a lifetime 98/100 “conservative” rating from the American Conservative Union), who voiced civil-liberties concerns.

"I have also questioned the Secretary [of Homeland Security] about her approval of the use of drones. In a March 2nd C- NET article, it was reported the DHS has customized its drone fleet to carry out domestic surveillance missions such as ‘identifying civilians carrying guns and tracking their cell phones,’ which fly in the face of civil liberties. We must ask whether the trade off in terms of border security is worth the privacy sacrifice."

— Adam Isacson

Filed under Border Security Drones CBP