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?