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“Border Security First” Advocates Block Real Immigration Reform

Only Comprehensive Reform Offers Lasting Solutions

SOURCE: AP/Joe Hermosa

Sgt. Jose Balli from the Texas National Guard looks at TV monitors during his training at the Harlingen Border Patrol Station in Harlingen, Texas.

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The “border security first” mantra is a popular refrain in Congress these days. The Republican-led House of Representatives has held numerous border-focused hearings and many more are expected. House Republicans are expected to introduce legislation soon that would require the Department of Homeland Security to provide a five-year plan to establish operational border control within 180 days. For their part, a number of Republican senators have flatly declared immigration reform dead until the border is secured.

This singular focus on border security is shortsighted. Border security is a concern shared on both sides of the aisle and by all Americans. But the current statutory definition of operational control—prevention of “all unlawful entries into the United States”—is unattainable. And this myopic focus also obscures the tremendous strides toward enhanced control made by the DHS under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

More importantly, by focusing solely on border security and enforcement, lawmakers are ignoring the devastating impact on workers, families, and communities that results from an enforcement-only policy. Enforcement on top of a broken system creates more dysfunction and more suffering without solving the problem. Only a comprehensive approach to immigration reform can achieve real solutions.

Proponents of the “border security first” agenda are hindering solutions that would enhance security while restoring the rule of law and our values. According to a new report from the Center for American Progress, the main arguments by border security first proponents rely on three assumptions: that “total control” of the border is realistic and achievable; the American public will only support immigration reform once the borders are fully secured; and that the current administration is not committed to border security.

These assumptions are false.

Congress’s current definition of “operational control” demands total control of every inch of our northern and southern borders, and our coastlines. But evidence and common sense confirm what every leading expert says: Absolute control is impossible. Instead, an effective border security policy should facilitate the flow of goods and people while identifying and stopping those who mean to do us harm. It should maximize control and minimize risks in a constantly changing environment. And effective risk management must include reforms to how we regulate the flow of legitimate entrants into the United States while dealing with the current undocumented population.

Polls show Americans prefer a pragmatic approach to fixing the broken immigration system, even in highly conservative states. For instance, in Idaho, 73 percent of the population registered support for a program enabling undocumented immigrants to permanently remain in the United States. And Utah recently passed legislation that mixes harsh Arizona-style enforcement measures with measures that would allow the state’s undocumented population to seek legal status. Public opinion research consistently demonstrates the public’s desire for a “both-and” approach, enforcement plus reform.

Moreover, while conservative pundits claim that immigration and border enforcement is recklessly lax under the Obama administration, evidence shows that the administration’s enforcement efforts actually exceed President George W. Bush’s. The Obama administration has deported 779,000 people over the last two years, which is 18 percent more than the Bush administration deported in its last two years. The Secure Communities Initiative—a controversial strategy that aims to enhance identification methods for criminal aliens—and the 287(g) program deputizing certain local law enforcement officers have both expanded dramatically under the current administration.

In addition, the DHS has already met or surpassed the benchmarks border first proponents outlined in a failed 2007 bill that called for certain enforcement levels to be satisfied before continuing with immigration reform. We now spend $17 billion a year on border enforcement, compared to approximately $12 billion in 2007. The number of Border Patrol agents has increased tremendously and is augmented by 1,200 National Guard troops the president has deployed. The 2007 legislation called for 20,000 border patrol agents. Now there are 21,370 Border Patrol agents and more than 20,600 Customs officers stationed at ports of entry. Technology and the construction of physical barriers have fortified our borders, and identification tools for workplace enforcement have strengthened them.

Border security first proponents are preventing needed reforms to our immigration system and enhancements to our national security. The administration’s commitment to immigration and border enforcement is indisputable. The American public’s desire for realistic solutions is clear. Federal legislators can no longer reasonably hide behind their border security first calls. The only real solution to our dysfunctional immigration system is through comprehensive immigration reform.

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Marshall Fitz is the Director of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress. Raúl Arce-Contreras is a Press Assistant for Ethnic Media at the Center for American Progress.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, poverty, Half in Ten Education Fund)
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Print: Anne Shoup (foreign policy and national security, energy, LGBT issues, health care, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7146 or ashoup@americanprogress.org

Print: Crystal Patterson (immigration)
202.478.6350 or cpatterson@americanprogress.org

Print: Madeline Meth (women's issues, Legal Progress, higher education)
202.741.6277 or mmeth@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
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TV: Lindsay Hamilton
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Radio: Chelsea Kiene
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