Posts tagged Border Security
Posts tagged Border Security
"We have a much more secure border today than we did ten years ago," Pryor says on a local TV talk show.
"Seriously, Senator?" the voiceover asks, incredulously, before playing the Pryor clip again.
A television ad by Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), who is campaigning to unseat Sen. David Pryor (D-Arkansas), mocks Pryor for saying that the U.S.-Mexico border is more secure today than it was ten years ago.
The plain answer to Cotton’s question, though, is, “Yes, seriously.” The U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border is significantly more secure today than it was in the mid-2000s.
Even with this year’s wave of Central American children and families, the number of undocumented migrants crossing the border today is well under half of what it was in 2004.
Our best measure of this is Border Patrol’s apprehensions of undocumented migrants. In 2004, although it had half the number of agents that it has today [PDF], Border Patrol apprehended 1,139,282 people along the U.S.-Mexico border [PDF].
By 2013, a far larger Border Patrol apprehended 414,397 people—-a 64-percent drop. Even if the Central America crisis increases 2014 apprehensions by 100,000 people, the resulting total would still be less than half as much as it was ten years before.
Another key security measure is violent crime. Though some Mexican border cities have suffered increases during the past decade, nearly all jurisdictions on the U.S. side have seen violent crime drop. According to FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data, U.S. counties along the Mexico border reported 5,410 violent crimes in 2004 [PDF]. In 2012, the last year for which full-year data are available, the same report found 4,582 violent crimes committed in these counties, despite notable improvements in reporting.
The only measure of border security that has not improved is drug trafficking, at least as measured by U.S. law enforcement agencies’ seizures along the southwest border. These agencies seized more of every drug, except cocaine, in 2012 than they did in 2008 [PDF].
By the other major measures, though, the U.S.-Mexico border is significantly more secure than it was ten years ago.
“[T]he current surge is far more than a humanitarian crisis resulting from violence and economic failures in Central America. The perception of eventual legal status has been generated through your Administrative actions.”
The border between Texas and Mexico has seen a big recent increase in arrivals of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. This July 2 letter, circulated by House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California), seeks to blame the Obama administration for the crisis, citing “failed policies that encourage young individuals to put themselves in peril, leave their home countries, and make a long and dangerous journey to enter our country illegally.”
This letter does not provide any substantial evidence to back up what have become immigration hardliners’ talking points on the failures of U.S. policies. Though evidence strongly suggests that violence is a major “push factor,” the 34 legislators’ letter instead insists that the policies spurring Central Americans to send children northward are:
It’s unlikely that Central American families are paying such close attention to discussions of administrative changes within the U.S. executive branch. Even leaving this aside, there are at least four reasons why the House members’ letter’s claims are inaccurate.
Border Patrol statistics, depicted above, show that arrivals of unaccompanied Central American children began increasing during U.S. fiscal year 2012, which ran from October 2011 to September 2012. DACA was not announced until June 2012. Immigration reform legislation had not yet been proposed, and the review of deportation procedures was far off. In fact, in 2012 the Obama administration broke the United States’ single-year record for deportations of undocumented foreign citizens (409,849 people): hardly a welcoming message for would-be migrants.
In 2011, Border Patrol apprehended 46,997 citizens of countries “other than Mexico”—the vast majority from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—near the Mexico border. So far this year (as of June 15), it has apprehended 181,724: on pace to register a three-year increase of 450 percent.
The United States may be the main destination, but several countries are seeing a similar rise in fleeing Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans. Between 2008 and 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports, the number of those countries’ citizens applying for asylum in nearby Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama rose by 712 percent.
The post-2011 rise in Central American migration, and the rise in asylum claims elsewhere, indicate that violence is the preponderant factor. Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries, especially Honduras, saw big increases in violent crime during the second half of the 2000s; by the 2010s these had reached levels higher than those of pre-“surge” Iraq. Gang and organized crime activity—assaults, kidnapping, extortion, rape, forced recruitment—touches nearly all the population, particularly youth. With police and justice systems near collapse amid resource scarcity and unpunished corruption, these countries’ citizens are left utterly unprotected by their states.
In 2009, Border Patrol apprehended 16,114 unaccompanied Mexican children, a figure that dwarfed the 3,304 Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran children it reported that year. Even as the number of Central American children shot upward in 2012, the number of Mexican children did not. In 2014, apprehensions of Mexican minors are on pace to match 2013 levels (about 17,250), a 7 percent increase over 2009. By contrast, 2014 apprehensions of Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran minors are on pace to nearly triple 2013 levels, and to exceed 2009 apprehensions by over 1,500 percent.
Why are arrivals of unaccompanied Mexican minors relatively flat? One is less intense violence: Mexico saw a sharp increase in violent crime since the mid-2000s, but it is concentrated in a few areas. The country’s overall homicide rate today is only about a quarter as high as Honduras’s. Another is that the United States has repatriation agreements with Mexico, which include Mexican government security guarantees, that make returning unaccompanied minors a very rapid process.
In a sense, there have been two increases in arrivals of unaccompanied children. One increase began at the beginning of 2012, most likely driven by the sharp rise in violent crime in the Northern Triangle. The next, even sharper, increase began early this year.
The two trendlines are evident in this graph depicting month-by-month numbers of unaccompanied minors in the custody of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), to which other U.S. authorities must turn over apprehended minors within 72 hours. It appears in a June 23 Congressional Research Service report.
2013, like 2012, saw an accelerating increase in arrivals of unaccompanied children. Flight from violence, including specific threats from MS-13, Barrio 18, and other criminal organizations, was likely the most significant cause. There were larger-than-normal seasonal increases in migration (and thus apprehensions) after January 2012 and January 2013. But the increase after January 2014 was even steeper. The trendline took an entirely different shape: that of a hockey stick.
Nobody knows what happened about six months ago to cause this sharp increase. There was no dramatic reported worsening of Central America’s already severe violent crime or poverty rates. There is no evidence that Central Americans suddenly came to view DACA (which only benefits people in the United States before 2007) or the stalled U.S. immigration reform debate as “green lights” to send their children northward.
One possibility is that the “hockey stick” was triggered by word spreading among the Central American population that the children who arrived since 2012 were not being detained and quickly deported. (Smugglers looking for customers may have helped spread this information.) Instead, after receiving “notices to appear” in immigration court, they were being released to—and thus reunited with—family members.
This has happened not because of DACA or immigration reform, but in accordance with an anti-human trafficking law that the U.S. Congress unanimously approved, and President George W. Bush signed into law, in December 2008. Section 235(b) of the “William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act” states that:
These legal proceedings take time, especially now that the system adjudicating such cases is overwhelmed. As a result, even if their status is never legalized and they end up eventually being deported, migrant children may end up spending a year or two living with parents or other close relatives who had come to the United States earlier.
That would mean a year or two in which parents need not worry about their child being killed, raped, or recruited by gangs. A year or two in which the child can eat three meals per day, attend school, and face at least a slim possibility of remaining in the United States. It is easy to imagine why a parent or other close relative would find this attractive enough to scrape together as much as US$10,000 to pay a smuggler’s fee.
That so many parents would leave children behind in the first place is a direct result of U.S. policy. Crossing the U.S.-Mexico border is now difficult and dangerous, after a large border security buildup that began in the 1990s and intensified in the 2000s. Before then, parents who migrated to the United States to earn money as undocumented workers could expect to go home periodically and see their children. Now, they do not attempt it because the likelihood of returning to the United States afterward is so slim. As a result, migrant parents in the United States go many years without seeing their children.
A child who was left behind while an infant or toddler 10-15 years ago is of prime gang recruitment age today, and parents’ desperation to be reunited is probably greater. The promise of doing so through the Section 235(b) process, even if temporarily while a child’s case is being adjudicated, may be a strong pull.
The research does not yet exist to confirm that the Section 235(b) provision has caused the 2014 acceleration in unaccompanied Central American minors’ migration. WOLA researchers did not hear it mentioned in interviews with migrants, migrant defenders, or shelter personnel during a February visit to Mexico’s southern border.
On the other hand, some press reports and comments from U.S. officials have mentioned Central Americans’ belief that the U.S. government is granting special permits (“permisos”) for children. This may be a mistaken reference to the “notices to appear” issued to those being released into relatives’ custody. We do not know how widespread this belief is in Central America, or when it began to spread. But if it did, it explains some of the sharp 2014 increase in unaccompanied children arriving in the United States.
Whatever the reason, the U.S. government must take seriously all unaccompanied minors’ claims for protection, even if many are ultimately found to lack sufficient merit. The criminal gangs and organized crime groups driving Central America’s out-of-control violence do target young people. A significant portion of the children here probably face a credible and specific threat of death or other harm. They can also credibly claim that their own governments are unwilling or unable to protect them.
Identifying these threatened individual minors, and evaluating their cases, will take time. An expedited effort to process and deport them must not put them in harm’s way. U.S. authorities must consider each case separately.
The Obama administration is promising to “fix” the procedure for unaccompanied minors set out in the 2008 law. A funding request that the White House submitted to Congress on July 8 calls for “increased detainment and removal of adults with children and increased immigration court capacity to speed cases.” A June 30 letter to Congress from President Obama promises administrative measures “providing the DHS Secretary additional authority to exercise discretion in processing the return and removal of unaccompanied minor children.”
These measures may be necessary to deal with an overwhelmed system, but the imperative to “speed cases” must not weaken Central American children’s right to due process. Procedural changes must not mean the kind of haste that leads to deporting children who face a high probability of being killed or otherwise harmed.
As for the claims in the 34 House members’ letter? They are patently false. They ignore the timing of the wave of unaccompanied children’s arrivals. They ignore the region-wide nature of the trend. They ignore the impact of the 2008 law—the letter doesn’t even mention it—and propose no way to protect thousands of children who may face grave threats to their lives if forcibly returned.
Instead, the letter pins the blame for the crisis on a modest measure, and two unfinished proposals, made during the Obama administration’s tenure. This leaves the unpleasant impression that its signers are comfortable using a genuine humanitarian emergency to score political points.
— Adam Isacson
“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.”
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.
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
“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.
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.
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
"This is border security on steroids."
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?
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.”
"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 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
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.
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)
“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.
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
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
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.
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:
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
“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.
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.
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
“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.”
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.”
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
"I was just down there last week. I was with the National Guard. I was in a Blackhawk. I saw them on the other side, the drug cartels, ready to come across in the middle of the night. It is not secure. … The ranchers will tell you, if you sit down and talk to them, that they’re fearful, that the Border Patrol is too far north. They need to get closer to the border because they let them go so far, and then they just sort of blend in, and they’re destroying their land and destroying their cattle, they’re destroying their water."
— Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, interviewed on Fox News, February 22, 2013.
"It’s like living in a no man’s land. The Border Patrol doesn’t really protect us. They try to arrest people north of us mainly. I feel that the United States has made a decision not to guard the border where they should. we should guard the border at the border."
— Rancher Jim Chilton of Arivaca, Arizona, interviewed by Mark Potter of NBC News, February 17, 2013. Potter also interviewed Chilton in December: “‘The druggers outrageously use my land at will,’ said Chilton, who frequently finds evidence of smugglers on his land — well-worn trails, cut fences, discarded water bottles, clothing and shoes.”
While Gov. Brewer and Mr. Chilton seem to conflate migrants and drug traffickers, they have a point. The U.S.-Mexico border is safer than it has been in decades, and state data show Arizona’s border counties experiencing double-digit drops in common crime over the past decade. But there are still areas of the border where people can plausibly claim to feel insecure as migrants and smugglers cross their property.
What is different than even the recent past, though, is that the areas where people feel threatened are ever more remote and unpopulated. The nearest town to Mr. Chilton is Arivaca (population 695), near the border southwest of Tucson, part of U.S. Census tract 43.16. In 2010, the Census Bureau found only 3,599 individuals living in this entire 998-square-mile zone.
The security concerns of ranchers in these remote areas are valid. But there are good reasons why the security presence is not at the level ranchers like Mr. Chilton demand — and they don’t have to do with official blindness to “real” security conditions.
It is in places like these where the cost and difficulty of border security grow substantially higher for each additional border mile, or piece of private property, covered. What sort of force would it take to patrol a 50,000-acre ranch, especially at night? Particularly when it is located two or more hours’ drive away from Border Patrol stations in a sector that already has eight? And when it includes border areas so rugged, steep or unstable that tall fencing — whose construction in more favorable circumstances costs US$3.9 million per mile — cannot be built?
View Border Patrol stations in the Tucson Sector
But cost may not even be the main issue. Of all nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors, Tucson has by far the most Border Patrol agents: 4,176 in 2012. That is 23 percent of the entire Border Patrol force along the Mexico border, in a sector that comprises just 13 percent of border miles. On average, each Tucson sector agent apprehended 29 migrants in 2012, down from 398 in 2000.
Lack of capacity, then, is not the reason why ranchers and Gov. Brewer aren’t getting the level of coverage they demand. Instead, it is a factor of how Border Patrol has chosen to allocate resources: officials believe that it is more effective to man checkpoints in areas several miles north of the border. “I would get less out of putting those agents on the line than having them operate those checkpoints,” an Arizona-based Customs and Border Protection offical told NBC News.
Ranchers’ concerns could be assuaged by increasing patrols, improving response times, and establishing closer coordination between them and law enforcement. But there is another dimension to ranchers’ security concerns: they are taking on a large political importance as Washington debates a possible comprehensive immigration reform.
A proposal [PDF] being developed by a bipartisan group of senators would require the border to be judged “secure” before immigration reforms, such as a “path to citizenship,” could go forward. It is possible, then, that ranchers’ fears in some of the most remote parts of the border could block immigration reform nationwide.
This is something that Gov. Brewer endorses: “I believe that until the ranchers, law enforcement, is satisfied and they tell us that this border is secured, there’s not going to be a whole lot of movement [on immigration reform],” she told Fox News.
Achieving zero border-crossers, though, has proved impossible even in zones that the Border Patrol considers to be under “operational control.” If full security in even the remotest areas is to be the standard for immigration reform, such reform may never happen.
— Adam Isacson
“[W]e have to have control to the level we have on the Yuma sector today, and we can achieve it and it’s doable, so we’ll do it.”
John McCain is one of eight senators, from both parties, who issued a proposal for immigration reform on Monday. The senators’ proposal establishes a “path to citizenship” for undocumented migrants. But as their plan foresees it, this reform wouldn’t begin until “enforcement measures have been completed” and a commission of state governors, attorneys-general, and community leaders certifies that the border is secure.
In other words, the senators’ plan requires that border security come first, before immigration reform. The White House’s plan, introduced Tuesday, does not include this condition. Whether the border must first be “secure” is emerging as a central point of disagreement.
The eight senators don’t seem to agree, though, what “secure” means. “If we made the path to citizenship contingent on a safe and secure border, and just used that phrase, then it’s in the eye of the beholder. It will always be subjective,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois).
But Republicans McCain and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) define a secure border rather strictly. The Associated Press reports:
“Rubio has said that ‘operational security’ of the 2,000-mile border should be achieved before illegal immigrants can begin to achieve citizenship. He’s defined that as law enforcement having a very high probability of being able to prevent somebody from illegally crossing the border or apprehending them if they do. A Government Accountability Office report in 2011 said that of the nine southwestern border sectors, only the Yuma, Ariz., sector had reported full operational security. [Also called ‘operational control.’]”
The Yuma sector, encompassing the border in far eastern California and far western Arizona, is one of nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border. Of all nine, it is the sector that has seen the steepest drop in apprehensions of migrants (and thus, presumably, the steepest drop in migrant crossings) since 2005: from 138,000 apprehensions that year to 6,000 in 2011.
Holding all nine border sectors to the Yuma standard of “operational security,” though, may be too high a standard. The Yuma sector is something of an outlier.
It has no major destination cities to attract migrants; the sector’s only significant population centers within 200 miles of the border are Yuma (population 95,000), Blythe (21,000) and Wellton (3,000), Arizona. Only two north-south roads, neither an interstate highway, parallel the Colorado river. The terrain is empty desert.
Google Maps satellite view of the Yuma sector.
The Yuma sector has only three Border Patrol stations. This is the least of all nine sectors, some of which have 12. It ranks seventh among the nine sectors in the number of miles of border that must be guarded (126), so it is not unusual that it should be eighth in migrant apprehensions.
Yet despite these advantages, the Yuma sector shows how difficult “operational security” is to maintain, much less to define. In 2012, Yuma was one of four sectors to register an increase in migrant apprehensions — a 14 percent rise, with 40 percent of those caught coming from countries other than Mexico (principally Central America).
If immigration reform must wait until all nine border sectors have reached the standard of Yuma today, as Senators McCain and Rubio indicate, then immigration reform may have to wait a long time.
— Adam Isacson
In late 2010, DHS reported that it could respond to illegal activity along only 44 percent of the Southwest border, leaving 7,500 border miles inadequately protected.
The 44 percent statistic comes from a February 2011 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), based on interviews with Border Patrol. In the report, GAO found that Border Patrol had “operational control” of 873 miles of the 1,969-mile U.S.-Mexico border, or 44 percent. (The report did not investigate conditions at the United States’ 5,525-mile border with Canada, the remainder of Rep. McCaul’s 7,500-mile figure.)
Rep. McCaul’s statement implies that the term “operational control” means U.S. authorities “could respond to illegal activity.” In fact, the standard is significantly higher.
GAO defines operational control as “Border Patrol was able to detect, respond, and interdict cross-border illegal activity.” The 2006 Secure Fence Act has an even more stringent definition: “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband.”
By that standard, it is remarkable that U.S. authorities believed that they had so much control of 873 miles of terrain that nothing at all could cross the line. And the same GAO report found that, between 2005 and 2010, Border Patrol had added an average of 126 miles per year of border under operational control. If that rate continued in 2011 and 2012, then 1,125 miles of border — 57 percent — might be under operational control today.
We don’t know how much of the border is under operational control today, however. The Department of Homeland Security abandoned “operational control” as a measure of performance in 2011, opting instead for more of a “spectrum” or “continuum” approach than an “on or off” standard.
— Adam Isacson
Last November, the Republican Party majority of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management issued a report on border and hemispheric security. A Line in the Sand: Countering Crime, Violence and Terror at the Southwest Border alleges, among several other claims, that the U.S.-Mexico border is vulnerable to infiltration by Islamic terrorists seeking to do harm on U.S. soil.
“Of growing concern and potentially a more violent threat to American citizens is the enhanced ability of Middle East terrorist organizations, aided by their relationships and growing presence in the Western Hemisphere, to exploit the Southwest border to enter the United States undetected.”
The report calls on the U.S. government to mobilize against this vulnerability — which it compares to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis — before an attack materializes.
“Recognizing and proactively confronting threats has presented a perennial challenge to our country. In the case of the Cuban missile crisis, we failed to deal with the Soviet threat before it resulted in a full-blown crisis that threatened nuclear war. Now we are faced with a new threat in Latin America that comes from the growing collaborations between Iran, Venezuela, Hezbollah and transnational criminal organizations. Similar to the Cuban missile crisis, the evidence to compel action exists; the only question is whether we possess the imagination to connect the dots before another disaster strikes.”
To back up its argument that the U.S. government must make an even higher priority of the cross-border terrorism scenario, the Subcommittee cites the following pieces of “evidence to compel action.”
“In August 2007 former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell stated that not only have terrorists used the Southwest border to enter the United States but that they will inevitably continue to do so as long as it is an available possibility.”
This claim comes from an El Paso Times interview with former DNI McConnell. He does claim that “there are some” cases of terrorists coming across the Southwest border, but “not in great numbers.” When the interviewer tries repeatedly to get McConnell to be more specific, he replies:
It is unclear whether the “Iraqis” McConnell refers to where proven terrorists, or simply migrants.
“In a July 2012 hearing before the full U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano confirmed that terrorists have crossed the Southwest border with the intent to harm the American people.”
When pressed for more detail, Napolitano told Rep. Ron Barber (D-Arizona),
“With respect, there have been—and the Ababziar matter would be one I would refer to that’s currently being adjudicated in the criminal courts—from time to time, and we are constantly working against different and evolving threats involving various terrorist groups and various ways they may seek to enter the country.”
Napolitano provided no further information. As WOLA has noted before, the “Ababziar matter” involved Iranian operatives allegedly seeking help from Mexico’s Zetas criminal organization for a plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. But the Iranians, in fact, never ended up making contact with the Zetas.
The authors of the Subcommittee report are right that the hypothetical scenario of terrorists crossing the border from Mexico demands constant vigilance. It would be irresponsible to dismiss it.
But with the evidence they present — vague official statements, three cases with no mention of any intent to engage in terrorist activity — the authors of the report do not make the case that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies need to be more vigilant than they already are.
The amount of intelligence, military and law enforcement resources available to monitor potential threats is finite. With more immediate concerns in North Africa, Syria, Afghanistan-Pakistan and elsewhere, the resources available to monitor Latin America and the Caribbean are even more limited.
U.S. authorities must choose wisely how these resources get used. Organized crime, money laundering, arms, drug and human trafficking, corruption, and migrant deaths already pose daily challenges in the U.S.-Mexico border area.
Preparing for possible cross-border Islamic terrorism is a significant additional challenge, but the Subcommittee report acknowledges that it requires “imagination” at this point. The State Department, meanwhile, reported last July that “no known international terrorist organization had an operational presence in Mexico and no terrorist group targeted U.S. citizens in or from Mexican territory.”
In our view, the evidence presented in the Line in the Sand report is not compelling enough to justify diverting resources — whether existing or additional — away from challenges that U.S. personnel already face every day in the U.S.-Mexico border zone.
— Adam Isacson