Two things are readily apparent about the border-enforcement provisions of the new immigration reform bill: spending on border enforcement will increase by billions of dollars, and legalization of (most) unauthorized immigrants will be linked to the meeting of certain border-enforcement “triggers.” For instance, during the first five years following the bill’s enactment, it provides for an investment of $1.5 billion in new fencing along the southern border and $3 billion for additional Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers, as well as surveillance technology and aircraft. These billions are meant to create “persistent surveillance” capabilities in “high risk” sectors of the border (that is, areas where apprehensions number 30,000 or more per year), and a 90% “effectiveness rate” in apprehensions in high-risk sectors (in order words, 90% of all undocumented immigrants trying to get in are caught or turned back). The unstated assumption in all of this is that more border-enforcement necessarily enhances national security.

Moreover, the bill’s enforcement measures must be approaching completion before its legalization provisions can kick in. For instance, no undocumented immigrant can apply for “Registered Provisional Immigrant” (RPI) status until the Department of Homeland Security has submitted to Congress, and begun work on, a “Southern Border Security Strategy” and a “Southern Border Fencing Strategy.” Likewise, with the exception of individuals eligible for the DREAM Act and agricultural-worker legalization portions of the bill, no RPI can apply to become a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) until the border-security and border-fencing plans are “substantially” complete—and a mandatory E-Verify system is in place—and an entry-exit system is functioning at airports and seaports. Given that most undocumented immigrants wouldn’t be able to apply for LPR status for 10 years, this particular trigger may have little practical impact.  Still, it raises the question of whether or not legalization should be tied to the achievement of certain border-enforcement goals. Some observers maintain that legalization itself is a security-enhancing policy because it brings people out of the shadows.

So, does border-enforcement spending buy us security? And must a certain level of border enforcement be achieved before legalization should be permitted?

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  • Sarah Morrigan

    Considering just about a half of the unauthorized/undocumented/irregular immigrant population today came to the U.S. legally through official ports-of-entry, the conversation must necessarily go to the why’s of overstays.

    I identify several problems with the current U.S. immigration laws.

    The number of undocumented immigrants skyrocketed after 1996 when President Clinton signed IIRAIRA into law. Among others, IIRAIRA established the infamous 10-year ban intended to discourage overstayers. In reality, how it turned out was the 10-year ban ended up DISCOURAGING people from leaving, and this also caused the seasonal migrants who once traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico to become more of immigrants. IIRAIRA not only destroyed any incentives for nonimmigrants to leave the country, but also ended many ways through which nonimmigrants could adjust their status while in the U.S. IIRAIRA had to be fixed long before 9/11, and it still needs to be repealed.

    IIRAIRA also began the modern trend of lengthy and inhumane immigration detentions and a boom in private prison industry.

    Another issue is the underlying U.S. policy framework for the issuance and administration of non-immigrant visas. The non-immigrant visas are overly specialized and complicated, with each of visa categories with varying eligibility requirements. For instance it makes no sense to have separate F and M visa categories. Many international students get into difficulties when they change majors or schools when their visa categories may change as a result of that switch (J to F, M to F, F to M). Furthermore, the visas are issued only to those who can prove the “lack of immigrant intent”; it is not clear how that can be possible for younger people, many even minors, who had never held a job or bought a property in their home countries. The reality is that life happens to non-citizens as much as to Americans. Foreign students who studied in the U.S., who are proficient in English and largely acculturated (if not assimilated) into the U.S. society, should be given a path to work experience in the U.S., which would allow them to either build a career that could eventually help them land a good-paying position in their own countries, or to seek LPR and citizenship down the road.

    During the early years of SEVIS’ operation, overzealous INS/ICE agents would pay visits to college campuses and demand DSOs student GPAs, then would arrest low-performing students right in the classrooms. SEVIS is faulty at its most fundamental level by allowing enforcement to be based on student grades, a highly subjective and arbitrary standard subject to easy manipulation, and giving DSOs (school employees who are usually not from law school background, and there is no standard licensing and training system set forth by the USCIS to ensure that DSOs are competent) too much power to decide whether a student is in or out of status.

    These are real issues in need for real solutions, and US-VISIT and SEVIS are band-aids.

  • Natalie Fair-Albright

    What happens if in 10 years the 90% security goal is not met? Are the RPI’s not allowed to apply for LPR status? What happens to them then? It is not their fault if the U.S. government fail at acheiving its goal on the southern border?

    • newbedford

      No, but it is their fault that they are here illegally. This program is a lifeline, a very controversial lifeline, and tying it to securing the border is not unreasonable. Personally, I think that after allowing a reasonable amount of time to sign up for the program and/or self-deport, that illegal presence should be criminalized. This would vastly reduce the number of illegal aliens and would address the problem of overstays which will not be solved by securing the southern border. Give them a chance to come out of the shadows. Give them a chance to get their green cards and citizenship, but if they do not avail themselves of those opportunities, then drop the hammer.

  • WendyFeliz

    Today’s Washington Post has an editorial warning against setting up these arbitrary numerical goals on border security. They suggest setting up goals and monitoring progress towards them rather than setting up arbitrary numerical goals that must first be met before legalization begins. The editorial can be found here: There is no doubt we need to put work into creating a secure border but how do we do it and then simultaneously allow the legalization process to get started so that both sides are sufficiently satisfied? Imagine delaying the enrollment of our population into health care until some arbitrary goals were met on curing cancer or some other difficult measure.

  • Phillip Ley

    I believe we need to consider our history of intervention in other nations. When we decide to invade, such as we did in Guatemala in the 1950s to oust a freely, democratically elected president, Jocobo Arbanz, causing a 36-year civil war, we need to accept the people who come to our country. When we subsidize our huge agribusinesses so that they in turn can dump their grain on foreign markets, putting out of business thousands of local farmers who are not able to compete with the U.S. Treasury, though they are able to compete with U.S. farmers who are not subsidized, then we need to accept the people who choose to globalize themselves for survival.

    The problem with our society is that we are so uninformed about our own history and the problems caused by decisions made in Washington, decisions that affect millions of people in other parts of the world who have no say in such decisions. I sincerely believe that if the citizens of the United States had any idea of the harm we caused in Honduras and Guatemala during the 1950s, we would reconsider our disdain for their people who come to our country, albeit without visas.

  • Walter Ewing

    I think the key question in this particular discussion is not how “wrong” unauthorized immigrants are for being here, or how much we “should” punish them. Rather, the pertinent question is whether or not national security would benefit from having them come forward and register with the government. And whether or not national security would benefit from the creation of legal avenues for immigration in the future that are sufficient to accommodate demand, thereby preventing a resurgence of unauthorized immigration. Measures such as these enhance security as much as, and perhaps more than, border fences and drones.

    • Don Aldridge

      I agree. The problem is legal immigration, not illegal immigration. Give the people a legal way to enter and we can get rid of thousands of Border Patrol agents and billions of dollars every year.

  • Bob Ritz

    The answer is not increased border enforcement; it has never worked and never will work. The answer is a well managed guest worker program. We need to know who is here, where they are, and for how long. Preferably these programs should be run through the states’ existing employment apparatus, not by the federal government. The current H2A program is woefully inadequate for running an efficient guest worker program, and local operation would be more sensitive to local needs. Undocumented workers could register in the program and work for any employer who was also registered an remain in their current domicile. A guest worker ID might be good for five or six years with extensions of another two or three years possible, as long as the total time is less than ten years. That way, the guest workers deductions for Social Security could go to the burgeoning number of American retirees – an employment tax if you will, that would make the program amenable to our own citizens and help mitigate our current/future problems with Social Security. Further, a tamper-proof government issued ID could be accessed not only by law enforcement or other government agencies, but on demand by other people doing business with the guest worker. If that sounds draconian, its also imminently practical: remember, we card citizens when they go to buy cigarettes or alcohol and most states demand identification when citizens go to vote. If undocumented workers cannot legally secure employment or housing or buy groceries, they won’t stick around for very long. “Thickening the border” will be a lot more efficient than increased border security.

  • PBTucson

    The Arizona-Sonora Border Coalition is focusing on the following
    topics to be considered for amending the Senate Immigration Reform Bill:

    1. Strengthen Oversight
    Although Sec 1111 requires all personnel to report each use of
    force and requires a review of that force, the review is dependent on self
    reporting and the review stays internal to the agency, leaving unaddressed
    potential abuse of power at the review level. Additionally, Sec 1113 creates a
    Border Oversight Task Force that includes 2 Border Patrol representatives,
    which presents a conflict of interest.

    2. Mitigate Border Deaths
    Title I does not address the human rights crisis of migrant
    deaths, which average more than 400 a year (the equivalent of one or more
    deaths a day). Sec 1107 does not address the need for access to emergency
    personnel in remote areas of the border where there is no cell phone coverage
    and where most of the deaths occur; this section only provides emergency access
    to landowners in the area by granting them satellite phones. Sec 1115 does not
    require any reporting on the impact of border operations on migrant deaths.

    3. Limit Power Without a Warrant
    Sec 1101 codifies (for the first time) the southwest border region
    as 100 miles from the southern border for purposes of border enforcement
    operations. This authorizes border enforcement operations as far away as
    Disneyland in Anaheim, CA. It reinforces and leaves intact CBP’s powers under 8
    USC 1357(a)(3) and 8 CFR 287.1 to act without a warrant to stop drivers and
    board public transportation to ask for papers within 100 miles, and to enter
    onto private property (within 25 miles).

    Also, be aware of this report:
    The Center for Latin American Studies, University of Arizona,
    has compiled a report, In the Shadow of the Wall: Family Separation,
    Immigration Enforcement and Security, that provides significant statistical
    data from deportee interviews by the Migrant Border Crossing Study group.
    Although the report was compiled before the Senate reform bill, it
    provides convincing arguments for reform.

    Website for Migrant Border Crossing Study:

    web version of report:


  • David Rivera

    Once again it appears that “Exclusionary Measures” are being implemented in the guise of border security. The proposed bill does not set aside one darn penny to protect us at our Norther exposure. Therefore it is reasonable to question whether the Nativists are gaining the upper hand by keeping our southern neighbors out and employing discriminatory practices to achieve their aims. Why should we spend so much money on this so-called border security enhancement.?