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.
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“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.
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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.
The Senate passed a legalization bill in 2006, but it couldn’t be reconciled with an enforcement-only bill passed by the House.
The next year, even the Senate failed. A bipartisan filibuster doomed the bill in part because of pressure from voters who feared the border wasn’t secure.
In the wake of those failures, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act demanding 700 miles of double-tier fence be built along the southwestern border. But the Border Patrol said it didn’t need that much, and a year later Congress gave the Homeland Security Department leeway to reduce the amount and type of fencing.
As of early this year, there were 36 miles of two-tier fencing, 316 miles of single-tier pedestrian fence and another 299 miles of vehicle barriers that allow pedestrians and wildlife to cross but are meant to keep out smuggling vehicles. That totals about 651 miles of barriers.
But the fence is a powerful symbol, and its support has been renewed. The compromise to be put to a vote this week calls for at least an additional 50 miles of the border to be fenced, and would push the Border Patrol to change vehicle barriers into full pedestrian fencing, for a total of 700 miles of the border walled off.
All 20,000 new agents will be dispatched to the southwestern border, to eventually bring the total force there to 38,400.
Backers call the investments a “border surge.” They said they didn’t include it in the original bill because they didn’t have the money — some $30 billion in additional spending.
But the Congressional Budget Office released an analysis last week that said the bill could reduce federal deficits by nearly $200 billion over the next decade when the economic effects of immigration are counted. The bill’s sponsors said they would plow some of that newfound money into border security in order to placate wavering Republicans.
“The border surge plan calls for a breathtaking show of force that will discourage future waves of illegal immigration,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “This compromise will inundate the southwest border with manpower and equipment. It not only calls for finishing a literal fence, it will also create a virtual human fence of Border Patrol agents.”
Critics, though, call it an overpriced bribe.
“They’re calling it a border surge, I think it’s more like a border splurge,” said Dan Millis, part of the Sierra Club Borderlands project, which has fought other proposed increases in enforcement.
Mr. Millis, who works in Tucson, Ariz., and has tracked the decadeslong boost in enforcement, said once the new agents are added, “the border area would look like a police state — even more so than it already does.”
As it is, driving just about anywhere on major roads near the border in Arizona means passing dozens of Border Patrol vehicles and, most likely, being stopped several times for checkpoints.
“Increasing the number of agents will not serve to further deter migration. Instead, it will further militarize border communities, who are often racially profiled by immigration agents who don’t understand that ‘brown’ does not mean ‘Mexican’ in Arizona. And if it does mean ‘Mexican,’ it doesn’t always mean ‘undocumented’ or ‘non-U.S. citizen,’” said Kat Rodriguez, coordinator of the migrant deaths project for Derechos Humanos, an Arizona-based group that combats border deaths.
Beyond that, some question whether there is enough work for 38,000 agents to do along the border.
“It’s totally absurd. I have trouble even picturing what this proposal might look like,” Mr. Millis said. “It almost makes me want to laugh and say ‘Go ahead, give it a shot.’ Where are they going to get these agents? Where are they going to put these agents?”
The Border Patrol will have to grapple with such questions.
“They need to be very cautious,” said W. Ralph Basham, a founding partner of the Command Consulting Group who, as commissioner of Customs and Border Protection under President George W. Bush, oversaw the last agent surge and who said the agency needs to be wary of pushing too far and too fast.
Under his watch, the Border Patrol expanded from about 9,000 agents to 18,000 agents.
“That was a Herculean task to accomplish by the end of the Bush administration,” Mr. Basham said. “Now, to think that you’re talking about another 20,000 Border Patrol agents, that’s a massive undertaking, and I’m just not quite sure at this point in time that’s necessary.”
It’s more than just an issue of need.
Mr. Basham and others said quick expansion means risking cutting corners — something the Border Patrol avoided for the most part in the last surge, when it resisted pressure to cut its 18-week training course.
But the former commissioner said there was always a danger of admitting the wrong applicant. That is particularly true in the face of evidence that cartels and other criminal organizations are seeking to get their people on the inside of the immigration bureaucracy.
“The thing that always troubled me was bringing in that number of people that quickly — are we truly able to do the type of vetting of these individuals in the way that needs to be done?” Mr. Basham said. “Are we bringing in people who are going to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution?”
Some analysts say the last border surge was responsible for cutting the illegal traffic. Others aren’t so sure, and they point to all sorts of unintended consequences such as on the environment.
What’s remarkable, though, is how both sides agree that a surge in agents will not be worth the money it will cost in terms of reducing illegal flows. From the Sierra Club to the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants a crackdown, to Derechos Humanos, which battles to stop migrant deaths, those familiar with the border region said the agents aren’t worth it.
“To me, this is just another example of how Congress is always willing to throw money at the border but ignores what happens beyond the border,” said Jerry Kammer, a senior research fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Ms. Meissner, the former head of the INS, said there is a law enforcement theory behind the additional manpower. It’s similar to the Colin L. Powell doctrine of overwhelming force that helped with the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the kind of “visible presence” strategy that police departments have used, flooding crime-laden areas with uniformed officers.
There also is likely a need for new resources along the border, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley, where a surge of migrants from Honduras and El Salvador has the Border Patrol scrambling to try to adapt.
But Ms. Meissner said the key to more enforcement spending is at the official ports of entry, where technology such as license plate scanners and identification checks could go a long way toward speeding commerce and improving safety.
She and other analysts said the real key to enforcement is still the interior of the country, where businesses willing to hire illegal immigrants create a magnet that no border security can stop.
One voice that has been missing is the Border Patrol’s. The union representing agents said it will weigh in Monday, just as the Senate is poised to vote.
Department officials, though, are likely to back the deal as a way of getting President Obama’s goal of legalization. Indeed, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano issued a statement late Friday saying she would accept the additional manpower and fencing because it appears to be the price of getting the legalization bill approved.
Few of the lawmakers who will vote Monday on the additional border security are familiar with the situation firsthand.
According to a survey this spring by The Washington Times, only 34 of the senators then in the chamber had been to the southwestern border to study the security situation during their time in office. Neither Mr. Hoeven nor Mr. Corker had been, nor had most of the rest of the sponsors of the border security amendment.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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