Past Event

In Search of Secure Borders

Taking Stock and Looking Ahead

12:00 - 1:30 PM EDT

The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act died in the Senate three years ago this week. On Monday, a report and a panel discussion at the Center for American Progress on the important progress made in border security since 2007 marked the anniversary of that bill’s failure.

The commonly held notion that our borders are porous and that border security remains lax doesn’t concur with the facts, according to the report, which was authored by C. Stewart Verdery, Jr., former assistant secretary for Policy and Planning at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, and current founder and partner at Monument Policy Group LLC.

Verdery said at Monday’s panel that the current state of border security demonstrates a “solid record of achievements over the last six years.” The Department of Homeland Security had established operational control of more than 939 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border by fiscal year 2009 and had 20,119 full-time agents in the U.S. Border Patrol, 299 miles of vehicle barriers, and 347 miles of pedestrian barriers all helping to ensure the security of our southwest border.

Those who advocate for ever-tighter enforcement as a way to crack down on illegal immigration fail to acknowledge the huge strides that have made our borders significantly more secure over the last half decade. And they do so at the expense of pursuing comprehensive reform.

There have been tangible improvements in enforcement compared with the border security levels of early 2000s, yet many continue to call for stronger border security while rejecting the idea of providing a path to legal citizenship for the undocumented immigrants already in the United States. Event moderator Marshall Fitz, CAP Director of Immigration Policy, framed the panel’s discussion as an attempt to “bridge the disconnect between the actual enforcement levels and the public perception of federal complacency” and move forward on discussing how to comprehensively reform our nation’s broken immigration system.

Arizona state Representative Kyrsten Sinema argued that some politicians use immigration as an inflammatory, emotional wedge issue instead of discussing the real problems within our system. Sinema concluded that S.B. 1070 became law due to a climate of irrationality. “Talk about this border violence has really escalated fear,” she said, referring to misrepresentations of border towns as being incredibly violent and dangerous.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has claimed that the majority of the undocumented immigrants in her state are involved in the illegal drug trade. She has put forward the statistic that 87 percent of people in Arizona jails are undocumented. And she’s presumably using these talking points to defend her signing of the controversial SB 1070 into law. But the facts simply don’t support such fearful and dubious rhetoric.

Only between 15 and 17 percent of inmates are undocumented immigrants, and the vast majority of people cross the U.S.-Mexican border to work, not to become involved in drug trafficking. Sinema raised concern over how S.B. 1070 targets noncriminal undocumented immigrants who come here mainly to work, yet fails to tackle the problem of violent cartels.

David A. Martin, principal deputy general counsel at the Department of Homeland Security, also debunked the notion that border towns are rife with violent crime instigated by undocumented immigrants. “Crime levels in border towns have remained flat or have dropped,” said Martin. Martin criticized those who say comprehensive reform can come only after we have achieved the nebulous goal of heightening border enforcement, saying, “People who talk about border enforcement first keep moving the goal post.” Politicians who adopt this stance indefinitely postpone having to talk about real comprehensive immigration reform. “It’s artificial to separate border security and make that a prerequisite for further reform,” said Martin.

Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, questioned what level of border security would satiate advocates of increased enforcement. “The quest for a perfectly secure border is a destructive fallacy,” said Alden, citing Communist-era East Germany, which had a tightly sealed and policed border yet still could not prevent people from crossing. He also urged people to keep in mind the economic benefits the United States reaps by being relatively open in terms of immigration.

If we continue to let the national debate be warped by misrepresentations and wedge-issue politics, then we’ll never obtain the momentum for truly comprehensive immigration reform. Discussions like this will hopefully raise awareness of this crucial issue, sparking the kind of thoughtful debate that leads to real, progressive change for the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.

Featured panelists:

Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
David A. Martin, Principal Deputy General Counsel, Department of Homeland Security
Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona State Representative, (D-Phoenix)
C. Stewart Verdery, Jr., Founder and Partner, Monument Policy Group, LLC

Moderated by:

Marshall Fitz, Director of Immigration Policy, Center for American Progress