Top Homeland Security officials told Congress on Wednesday that they still don't have a way to effectively measure border security — a revelation that lawmakers said could doom the chances for passing an immigration legalization bill this year.
Three years after the Obama administration scrapped the previous yardstick, which measured miles of the border under "operational control," top Customs and Border Protection officials told Congress that the new measure they're working on won't be ready for public use any time in the near future.
The announcement stunned lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who said that without a way to measure border security, they may not be able to convince voters to accept a new legalization.
"You do not want the Department of Homeland Security to be the stumbling block to comprehensive immigration reform for this country, and it could happen. So get in the game," said Rep. Candice S. Miller, Michigan Republican and chairwoman of the House's border security subcommittee.
Customs and Border Protection is working on what it calls the Border Control Index, which members of Congress had thought would be the new measure. But Mark Borkowski, who heads the agency's technology innovation office, said that's not what they're planning.
"I don't believe we intend, at least at this point, the BCI would be a tool for the measure you're intending," he said.
Border security is a major sticking point in negotiations over immigration.
In 2007, the last time the Senate debated immigration, the bill failed in part because voters didn't believe the government was serious enough about gaining control of the border.
Since then, Congress and the Bush and Obama administrations have poured manpower and technology into the southwest border, and President Obama has said the border is now more secure than it's ever been.
But without an official yardstick, it's tough to measure that.
The U.S. Border Patrol used two measures in the past. One was to track the number of people agents apprehended — a figure that has been dropping in recent years, which the Border Patrol said likely means fewer people trying to cross. But apprehensions actually ticked up in 2012, suggesting an increase in the illegal flow.
The other measure was operational control, which measured how many miles of border the agency thought it could reasonably detect and apprehend most illegal crossings. In 2010, the last time the figure was reported, a government audit found just 44 percent of the border was under operational control.
When they scrapped the operational control yardstick, Homeland Security officials said they would have a new one ready in 2012. A year later, members of Congress said they're still waiting.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said she doesn't think legalization should be held up over the issue, but she said Homeland Security needs to do better.
"You've got to get in the game," the Texas congresswoman said. "What I'm hearing here is not really a definitive game strategy."
Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher testified that his agency does track a number of different measures that could be part of an overall yardstick. He said Border Patrol is refining its estimates of how many people enter, how many people evade capture and escape into the U.S., and how many turn back before being captured.
He also said it is beginning to analyze how many of those they apprehend have criminal records or outstanding arrest warrants or were previously deported. Chief Fisher said those measures will fluctuate along the border, and his goal is to come up with a threat assessment and then be able to put the right amount of technology and manpower in those places where there are problems.
There are other measures, too, such as crime rates in border counties. Those have been dropping in the southwest, even as a drug war rages on the Mexico side of the border.
But drug seizures are up dramatically, which signals an increase in smuggling across the border.
Rep. Ron Barber, Arizona Democrat, urged the Border Patrol to get the input of ranchers and townspeople along the border before it finalizes its new border security yardstick.
"When I talk to ranchers, for example, and they tell me they are unsafe on their land and they can't go to town without taking their children with them ... then we are not secure, from their perspective," he said. "It's a matter of where you are and what you're facing."
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