When the Obama administration scrapped the old definition for measuring border security two years ago, it left the government without any way of measuring how much of the U.S.-Mexico border is under operational control.
On Wednesday, the House pushed back, approving a bill demanding that the Homeland Security Department come up with a good yardstick for measuring border security and produce a concrete plan to get the country closer to that goal.
The bill passed by voice vote and had the support of both Republican and Democratic leaders on homeland security issues, signaling a bipartisan desire for real data on whether the border is secure — a precondition both sides say is necessary before they can talk about legalizing illegal immigrants already in the U.S.
Her bill orders Homeland Security to submit a plan within 180 days that would detail how to achieve control of the borders within five years.
Under the Bush administration, the government used a measure called “operational control,” which was defined as areas where the government could adequately detect and respond to illegal crossings.
Lawmakers said the Obama administration stopped releasing operational control data in 2010. A year ago, Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano announced that her department was working to come up with a new yardstick instead.
In the interim, it has been using apprehensions of illegal immigrants along the border as a measure, but all sides agree that has limitations. For example, nobody knows exactly how many people avoided capture and made it into the U.S., and it doesn’t account for those crossing only to drop off drugs.
A secure Southern border has become a key hurdle for President Obama’s push to legalize the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S.
The administration argues that it has made dramatic strides in security, but opponents point to the lack of total operational control as evidence that the situation is not resolved.
“Given that the Obama administration has given up reporting the level of operational control on the border, it’s no wonder Congress has to force them to come up with an approved plan to achieve it,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who used to call for legalization but now says it must be put off while the country focuses on border security first.
Neither the Homeland Security Department nor Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the border strategy, replied to requests for comment Wednesday on either the legislation or on progress toward a new measure of security.
But in testimony to the House this month, Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher said the old measures were part of the earlier strategy for a giant boost in manpower and infrastructure as the Border Patrol tried to build its capabilities.
Now with twice the personnel and armed with drones and other new technology, the Border Patrol says it’s ready to start looking at better measures — which it will call the Border Conditions Index — though what those are is still under development.