The border security deal senators struck last week has cleared the way for the immigration bill to pass with the support of at least 11 Republicans who say the additional 20,000 Border Patrol agents and potentially 350 miles of new fencing make the bill palatable.
The only problem, according to analysts on all sides of the issue, is that those steps are not likely to achieve much in the way of stemming another wave of illegal immigration.
This is the crux of the border security fight, which has become the central issue in the battle to pass an immigration bill through the Senate, and will be the subject of a key test vote Monday: What kind of security measures will it take to convince Americans that the country is serious about preventing another wave of illegal immigration — and are those measures the right answer?
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who helped write the original bill and then negotiated the added border security, said it was a lock that more agents will stop the flow of illegal immigrants.
“I’ve been working on this for almost a decade with Sen. [John] McCain. I can look anybody in the eye and tell them that if you put 20,000 Border Patrol agents on the border in addition to the 20,000 we’ve already got — that’s one every 1,000 feet — that will work,” Mr. Graham told colleagues on the Senate floor. “If you build the fence, that all helps. So I don’t need any more than just getting it in place.”
But analysts, including one former chief of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Clinton, one who lead Customs and Border Protection during the last agent surge under President George W. Bush, and several from interest groups on opposite sides of the issue, say the problem isn’t an issue of manpower.
“It really does feel like serious overkill,” said Dorris Meisner, now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute who served as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000.
In terms of illegal immigration, the southwestern border is far more secure than it was just a decade ago — or at least it appears to be, based on the only consistent measure, which is how many illegal immigrants are caught each year.
The Border Patrol says that for every illegal immigrant caught, a certain stable percentage get through. So a drop in apprehensions signals a drop in traffic overall, and apprehensions had been dropping steadily, from nearly 1.2 million in 2005 to 327,577 in 2011.
The number rose to 356,873 last year and increased during the first six months of the 2013 fiscal year, causing some to wonder whether the problem is returning.
What nobody knows for sure is whether that is because the U.S. economy has been slumping, thus lowering demand for workers; because the Mexican economy has been improving, which eases the pressure to leave; or because the addition of manpower and resources has made the border less penetrable.
But there is no doubt that the drop coincided with the boost in agents, which went from about 9,000 at the beginning of the Bush administration to 21,000 now, nearly 18,500 of them along the southern border.
The danger is no longer just people crossing. Drugs, potential terrorists and spillover violence from cartel clashes south of the border all threaten the Southwest.
The last time Congress tried to pass immigration bills, in 2006 and 2007, it was against the backdrop of high rates of illegal border crossings and a thriving economy that was attracting workers.