Massive Border Enforcement Falls Short

Immigration Reform Needed for Long-Term Security

Comprehensive immigration reform is desperately needed as Americans struggle under the failure of years of piecemeal strategies.

A U.S. Border Patrol truck is parked along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)
A U.S. Border Patrol truck is parked along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)

Read also: Brick by Brick: A Half-Decade of Immigration Enforcement and the Need for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Brick by brick, one at a time, blocks of hardened clay arrived in senators’ offices in 2006 as the Senate debated comprehensive immigration reform. Opponents of the measure sent them with a clear message: build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and block the rest of the bill that would expand visas and legalization programs for immigrant workers and their families.

The wall of opposition to comprehensive immigration reform prevailed the following year when the Senate failed to pass a revised measure that had even stricter enforcement provisions over the previous year’s draft.

Today marks three years since the demise of congressional debate on needed immigration reform, and it’s clear to see that immigration “enforcement only” hardliners got their way plus more with the exponential increases in border patrol staffing, hundreds of miles of new physical and electronic fencing, and updated hardware and ports of entry—billions of dollars in all. The breadth of enforcement initiatives adopted over the last five years is detailed in a report released today by the Center for American Progress by C. Stewart Verdery, Jr., former Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy under the Bush administration.

The Bush administration funded and implemented the immigration enforcement program included in the failed 2007 measure anyway, and it carried out some major pieces of the initiative so harshly that it disrupted families and communities, and continues under the Obama administration to infringe upon basic civil rights.

Yet politicians—especially immigration restrictionists in Arizona—continue to this day to pander to the public by calling for more spending on enforcement with a vague promise that once the border “is secure,” then maybe they will debate comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

The hard truth they do not accept is that “enforcement only” is a failed strategy. Congress cannot restore law and order in the immigration system until it enacts broad reforms that also deal with the 11 million undocumented immigrants that reside in the United States today. And it must alter some of the enforcement measures that remain in effect under the Obama administration.

“The compelling need to fix our broken immigration system has only grown as enforcement has increased to robust levels,” says Verdery in his report. “Waiting for an airtight border to solve our immigration problems would be an unrealistic, impractical and unsuccessful strategy.”

The Verdery report outlines the various border security initiatives funded by Congress during the last five years, with a special emphasis on those that grew out of the 2007 draft legislation. The 2007 bill began with a specific mandate: new visa programs and other benefits from the bill could not go into effect until the DHS secretary certified that certain immigration enforcement measures were operational.

Those benchmarks included “operational control” of the U.S.-Mexico border, almost doubling the size of the border patrol, building physical and “virtual” technology border barriers, putting into effect a “catch and return” policy that automatically detains and removes undocumented immigrants, and implementing workplace enforcement tools.

Those policies and more went into effect, but some were not deployed in a fair and just manner, further undermining the integrity of the immigration system.

CAP supports strong enforcement of immigration laws at the border and at the worksite so that law-breaking employers are reined in and forced to pay taxes. But some of the initiatives have been counterproductive and contrary to our basic values. For instance, the 287(g) program was ostensibly designed to make communities safer by enabling local police to help with specific immigration enforcement efforts. But that program has been rife with abuse and has made communities less safe by destroying trust between the local police and the immigrant communities they serve.

Other programs, such as Operation Streamline, demonstrate the pitfalls of policy rigidity. The program mandates criminal prosecution of 100 percent of captured border crossers and increased immigration prosecutions exponentially. But the lack of flexibility has diverted limited resources away from the prosecution of far more serious crimes.

Then there are programs that sacrifice due process at the altar of expediency. The expansion of “expedited removal,” for example, means that some people do not get fair consideration of their case and serious mistakes are inevitably made. Policies that mandate detention, especially of individuals not convicted of a crime, likewise raise questions of both fairness and efficacy.

Some politicians, including both U.S. senators from Arizona, abandoned or derailed negotiations on comprehensive immigration reform after the bricks started flying on Capitol Hill because their voters wanted to see more bricks and mortar on the border. Although, polls show a majority of voters want a comprehensive solution, one that combines border security with strict enforcement at the worksite and a tough but fair and practical legalization program for current undocumented immigrants.

In doing so, they ignored the reality that border security and enforcement are essential elements of a broader effort to overhaul the failing immigration system. Enforcement alone will not work, as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said on the Senate floor in September, 2006. “If Congress thinks that it can continue this piecemeal approach to border security and achieve any real results for our national security, it is sadly mistaken,” he argued.

That statement has unfortunately been proven true.

Gebe Martinez is a Senior Writer and Policy Analyst and Marshall Fitz is Director of Immigration Policy at American Progress.

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Marshall Fitz

Senior Fellow