Immigration reform is one of US President Barack Obama’s priorities for his second term, but for a wide-reaching package to pass, lawmakers need to be convinced that the border with Mexico is secure, and this will be no easy sell.
Apprehensions of undocumented aliens at the frontier have dropped 50 percent since 2008, falling to 365,000 people last year, which the Obama administration cites as evidence that border security measures work.
Deportations of aliens without residency permits, particularly those with criminal records — a key government goal — stand at about 400,000 a year.
However, the investigative arm of US Congress, the Government Accountability Office, dampened the government’s optimism one week ago with a report submitted to the US House of Representatives. The report said that the number of apprehensions at the US-Mexico border “provides some useful information, but does not position the department to be able to report on how effective its efforts are at securing the border.”
“The Border Patrol is in the process of developing goals and measures; however, it has not yet set target timeframes and milestones for completing its efforts,” it added.
Marc Rosenblum, an immigration policy expert with the Congressional Research Service, said that “the size and diversity of the US border mean that no single, quantitative, off-the-shelf indicator accurately and reliably provides a metric or a ‘score’ for border enforcement.”
Another report found that southern US cities — in particular El Paso, Texas — just across the border from violence-plagued Ciudad Juarez, are the safest in the country, with constantly dropping rates of all types of crime. That study was based on FBI figures.
So far, the Republicans, who control the House, have been adamant that they will not approve major immigration reform until they are convinced the border is secure.
US authorities estimate there are 11.5 million illegal aliens in the US, most of them Mexican and Central American, though the flow from Mexico has practically dried up.
US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano says a 100 percent secure border is impossible and now she has to deal with her slice of the so-called sequester, or deep cuts in public spending, which means her funding will be slashed by an amount equivalent to the salaries of 5,000 border agents.
The border between the US and Mexico is the busiest in the world, with 350 million people crossing it every year.
Figures on border activity have always been problematic because they only take into account apprehensions and people caught more than once trying to sneak in, not those who do make it across into the US, or the effect of factors such as tunnels.
Three years ago, the US Department of Homeland Security announced it would use a new measuring tool called “operational control of the border,” which has five levels of effectiveness.
When the agency said it had top and second-level control of just 57 percent of the more than 4,800km border, Republicans expressed outrage.
The department dumped the tool the next year and for now it uses figures based on apprehensions of illegals.
The Government Accountability Office report said Homeland Security has pledged to present new goals and timeframes in November — a target that hardly suits the White House’s stated goal of getting reform passed in a matter of months.
One idea being debated is to create an independent commission that will determine when it thinks the border is secure.
Advocates of immigration reform say that the debate could really go on forever.
“You’re never going to seal that border,” Napolitano said in a speech recently.
However, another key factor in the debate is that about 40 percent of the illegal aliens in the US probably entered the country legally, with a visa that has since expired, Homeland Security figures show.