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July 14, 2014 at 6:20 AM

What candidates really mean when they say “secure the border”

A newly-constructed fence near Nogales, Ariz., allows Border Patrol agents to see through the fence, making it harder to scale (John Moore/Getty Images)

A newly-constructed fence near Nogales, Ariz., allows Border Patrol agents to see through the fence, making it harder to scale (John Moore/Getty Images)

Interviewing Congressional candidates over the past two weeks, The Seattle Times editorial board kept a tally of vague but repetitive phrases. Top of the list: “secure the border first.”

I asked candidate after candidate to define “secure,” and got more vacuous rhetoric. Why is that so hard?

Because the candidates aren’t saying what they really think. Christopher Wilson, a border expert at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson Institute says total border security (known as “operational control”) essentially means sealing the border. “If that’s your goal, sealing the border to all unauthorized traffic, I don’t know if that’s even possible. I do know it’s extremely expensive.”

It already is. The 2013 U.S. Customs and Border Protection budget was $11.9 billion, which is more than a half-billion more than 2011 and double the 2003 level.

Take just one aspect of border security. Between 2006 and 2009 alone, $2.4 billion was spent to build about 670 miles of pedestrian and vehicle-resistant fencing, plus 300 towers and nine drones. Proposals to expand the fence further along the 2,000-mile border was estimated by the General Accounting Office at $3.9 million per mile, but that demand persists.

None of the candidates I asked about the “secure the border” mantra — save Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue — mentioned this fact: The U.S. has hit nearly every target from George W. Bush’s 2007 immigration bill.

That law set a goal of 20,000 border agents; the U.S. Customs and Border Protection had 21,244 by 2011. It required 34,000 daily detentions at Immigration and Customs Enforcement jails, which is a very expensive give-away to private prison contractors, as a Seattle Times editorial noted.BP-agents

All that surveillance has a worked: Apprehensions at the southern border in 2013 totaled 414,397, which is half the rate from 2007, and about the rate of the 1970s (and less than half the rate during the George W. Bush Administration). That data can be crassly interpreted as the Obama Administration de-policing illegal immigration, but it more likely reflects a reduced flow, thanks to the spending. And the Obama Administration’s rate of deportations is more than 2.5 times the rate of 2002.

Wilson, the immigration expert, says border security has become narrowly defined amid the immigration reform debate. A truly secure border would mean stopping all terrorists and shipments of hard drugs, which both arrive through airports or ports. Not to mention arms trafficking, money laundering and human trafficking. “When we talk about border security, what we’re really talking about is immigration control,” said Wilson. “The border is not the place to do enforcement of everything.”

If that’s what candidates want — a sealed border — please say so. Because then the debate can shift from vacuous phrases to hard numbers. “How many times are we willing to double the size of border patrol and this aspect of border security before we decide we’re going to stop doing it?” asks Wilson.

Comments | Topics: border security, congress, illegal immigration

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