We Are Measuring Border Security All Wrong

Manager of Policy and Advocacy

July 8, 2015

In April, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson held a press conference at which he discussed the state of border security. In this presentation, the secretary used many longstanding border security metrics, focused mostly on inputs, or resources devoted to the border. Johnson noted that record levels of enforcement, including peak numbers of border patrol agents and officers, have made our border safer than it has ever been.

However, these measures do not tell us the whole story when it comes to border security.

The secretary is right that an incredible buildup in enforcement at our borders has occurred in recent years. A record 21,370 Border Patrol agents continue to be stationed at the border, and 651 of the 652 miles of fence that the Border Patrol has determined to be operationally necessary have been built. The fence now stretches almost the entire length of the border from California to Texas, with double fencing in many areas. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) also relies heavily on technology to secure our borders and ports of entry: It now has more than 250 remote video surveillance systems with day and night cameras deployed on the Southwest border, and 39 mobile surveillance systems, thermal imaging systems, radiation portal monitors and license plate readers. CBP also operates 11 Predator B unmanned aerial drones that provide surveillance of the border across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

But what have all those resources gotten us? The only output measure Secretary Johnson discussed was a limited one: He’s also right that Border Patrol apprehensions were down across the board for the first time in more than three years, but a vast range of factors affect that number; inputs are just one. Just two of the others: How many people are trying to cross, and what’s influencing them? How many are crossing without detection?

There’s a better way to define and measure border security, and that’s important. Many members of Congress say the border must be secure before Congress addresses other parts of the broken immigration system, but they do not define what that means. But the Bipartisan Policy Center released a report earlier this year that should be a starting point. The report, “Measuring the Metrics: Grading the Government on Immigration Enforcement,” examines already available data and identifies additional data that should be used to create an objective set of comprehensive, outcome-based border security performance measures.

The report points out we must move away from measures such as how many agents are stationed on the border or how many people are detained and instead adopt output measures that assess achievement and progress. The report includes analysis of some existing output measures, such as whether CBP’s consequence delivery system, where individuals are assigned various consequences for crossing the border, actually deters attempts to cross the border, and it offers a critique of how CBP currently measures deterrence. These types of outputs need to be examined when assessing border security.

In addition, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs to provide the public with transparent and consistent measures. Currently, DHS does not release many of its measures and uses different metrics from year to year, which makes comparisons very difficult. The lack of publicly available and consistent metrics has contributed greatly to the public’s lack of clarity surrounding our nation’s border security. It has also made it difficult for members of Congress to hold the agency accountable and to know what additional resources are necessary to secure our border.

Any additional increases in border security should be implemented in a smart and conscientious manner. Millions of dollars have been spent in the last decade as more and more money has been poured into border technology, all without metrics to show how truly effective these investments have been.

In a positive development, it appears that Congress might be listening. The Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill for fiscal year 2016 the Senate Appropriations Committee approved this month included report language requiring CBP to keep, maintain and publish consistent metrics related to border security. Hopefully, the inclusion of this report language signals the beginning of a shift on how policymakers think about measuring border security.