National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

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Border Control vs. Sealing the Border

April 08, 2011 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Berlin Wall


The topic of “operational control” of the border has been a hot topic in Congress lately, and the Forum has just posted a new analysis explaining the issue.


For many years now, politicians wanting to show how tough they can be on immigration have advocated more and more border enforcement.  In 2006, Congress defined operational control in the Secure Fence Act as the prevention of all unlawful entries into the U.S.


The Border Patrol, on the other hand, uses a layered approach in which resources are deployed based on risk to gain effective control of the border.


As the Forum’s paper points out, the concept of operational control as defined by statute is unrealistic; a tightly sealed border has only been approximated by totalitarian states that have lined their border with armed guards.  For the U.S. to completely seal the border the cost would be, as Richard Stana of the Government Accountability Office put it so kindly, “probably out of reasonable consideration.”  It would also create an image of this country more like that of the old East Germany.


By managing resources with the goal of gaining effective control, more or fewer resources are deployed in a given area based on risk assessment.  For example, remote areas offer few opportunities to melt into the general population, so there is less need for the Border Patrol to immediately respond to an illegal crossing as it is happening.  Illegal crossings in urban areas offer greater opportunity to evade detection if they are not responded to immediately.


Everywhere else in the U.S., law enforcement manages crime in their communities.  In a community, a rash of crime might lead to the hiring of more police, but eventually, even though crimes continue to be committed, the police manage the crime at a rate acceptable to the community given the costs.  A local politician who called for the hiring of 10 more police officers every time a crime is committed would not long keep his job.  Communities have to balance their budgets.


Not so at the federal level.  Border enforcement is the whipping post to which politicians like to tie their opponents.  When a crime is committed by a border intruder, politicians will call for a thousand more Border Patrol agents or deployment of the National Guard.  They don’t have to worry about how to pay; the money can be borrowed. 


Exhibit A: On March 30, Representative Ed Royce (R-CA) introduced the “Keeping the Pledge on Immigration Act of 2011.”  This bill calls for the deployment of up to 4,000 additional National Guard on the border (more, if the Governor of a border state wants more) until the Secretary of DHS certifies that the government has achieved “operational control” of the U.S.-Mexico border as defined in the Secure Fence Act.  The bill also calls for more border fencing, and mandates the full implementation of the US-VISIT system’s entry and exit controls within four years.  (The bill also has an interior enforcement section that would, among other things, ban certain community policing policies developed by law enforcement agencies for effective policing in immigrant communities.)


The bill has no provision to raise revenue to pay for sealing the border or for its other provisions, so, even as budget negotiators are wrangling over how much to cut the budget, others are proposing to pile on more debt.


A better approach is to strive for effective control that allows the Border Patrol to deploy resources to areas that pose the greatest risk.  It makes much more sense, strategically and financially.


For more on “operational control,” read our paper.

Image by Flickr User siyublog

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