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Refocusing Border Efforts

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The current border-enforcement-only approach to immigration is a futile attempt at employing Border Patrol agents and physical barriers to regulate the current labor needs of the U.S. economy. This approach is not working. We need a comprehensive approach to immigration that will more intelligently provide the skilled and unskilled labor that our country needs through legal means, enable those living and working within the United States to be better integrated into society, and allow the Department of Homeland Security to focus its resources on actual security threats at America’s borders and other ports of entry.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing today to discuss challenges and strategies for securing U.S. borders; it will focus on the US-VISIT program, which attempts to track the movement of non-citizens into the United States. We must continue to refine US-VISIT’s purpose and develop its capabilities. For US-VISIT to serve its intended purpose, however, it must be able to document those entering and exiting the United States. Otherwise, it will create “phantom overstays” that clog up the enforcement system.

A safer, modern immigration system must combine border and workplace enforcement with mechanisms to regulate future flows of immigrants into our country and allow the 12 million undocumented already here to emerge from the shadows. This must include heightened penalties and enforcement for employers who routinely and knowingly hire undocumented workers. As long as U.S. companies are willing to hire undocumented workers, people will find a way to enter the United States illegally.

Comprehensive immigration reform must thus include a legal means for entry—including ultimate access to a path to earned legalization—for individuals who are willing to apply for multi-year temporary status, maintain a job, pay taxes, obey the law, learn English, and clear criminal and terrorism background checks. This aligns with our country’s tradition of valuing hard work and will allow law enforcement to conduct background checks and focus its efforts on actual terrorists and criminals rather than criminalizing all immigrants.

Experts agree that the current enforcement-only approach to immigration is not helping our security. The Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy magazine surveyed national security experts from across the political spectrum last year; 70 percent agreed that improving the visibility of the flow of people and cargo through ports of entry is the best way to improve U.S. security, while only six percent said that they would opt for building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Border Patrol data emphasizes the failure of the border-enforcement-only approach. Even though the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents tripled between 1990 and 2005, and funding for the program was increased tenfold, the undocumented population in the United States doubled in size, the death rate of border crossings tripled, and the per-apprehension cost increased to $1700 in 2002 from only $300 in 1992.

It is time to refocus our immigration efforts so that border security efforts can concentrate resources on the fraction of foreigners who may seek to enter the United States—be it from the north, south, east, or west—with evil intentions.

Time to Act, a report on the implementation of the 9/11 Commission recommendation released this month by the Center for American Progress, outlines a more effective strategy for our borders. We need more U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents along borders and at ports of entry, equipped with better technology, real-time information, and organizational support.

This means funding 2,000 additional agents per year for at least the next four years as called for in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, updating technology to allow Customs and Border Patrol officials to more quickly and effectively screen all individuals and cargo entering the country, and putting in place the appropriate organizational and management capabilities to support a larger work force and allow officials to quickly and effectively share information.

These steps are an important step toward strengthening U.S. homeland security. Yet none of this is possible without remedying the massive misapplication of resources that border-enforcement-only approaches to immigration have caused. Border security and immigration reform are integrally linked. To enhance U.S. border security, Congress needs to end its divisive and futile debate regarding immigration and adopt a more realistic and less ideologically-driven approach.

Contact our experts Dan Restrepo and P.J. Crowley for additional information and comments:

For TV, Sean Gibbons, Director of Media Strategy
202.682.1611 or sgibbons@americanprogress.org

For radio, Theo LeCompte, Media Strategy Manager
202.741.6268 or tlecompte@americanprogress.org

For print, Trevor Kincaid, Deputy Press Secretary
202.741.6273 or tkincaid@americanprogress.org

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

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, poverty, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.741.6285 or kpeters@americanprogress.org

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
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Lindsay Hamilton
202.483.2675 or lhamilton@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org