Has border security spending been effective? It’s hard to say

Medill News ServiceAugust 14, 2013 

— Despite the billions of dollars spent on border security, it’s pretty hard to tell whether the money is accomplishing what it’s supposed to, according to two federal oversight agencies.

The Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service, both independent research arms of Congress, say in recent reports that even with the amount of border data collected by the federal government, there’s no adequate barometer to measure the effectiveness of the enforcement efforts.

Since 2011, the Department of Homeland Security has used the number of apprehensions of illegal entrants on the Southwest border as a measure of success. Before that year, the main measure was the number of miles of the southern border that were secured.

“Apprehensions provide information only on activity levels,” said Rebecca Gambler, the director of homeland security and justice issues at the GAO and the author of its report. “It cannot be used to inform resource allocation or to measure the success of the efforts.”

Marc Rosenblum, a specialist in immigration policy who authored the Congressional Research Service report, expressed a similar view in testimony earlier this year before the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security.

“We do not know if a decline in apprehensions is a good thing because fewer people are attempting to enter or a bad thing because more of them are succeeding,” he said.

Customs and Border Protection appears to be grappling with the same question. In 2009, it attributed increases in apprehensions in certain sectors along the southern border to improved operations, explaining drops as the result of the improved technology.

Andrew Morral, a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corp., said a metric that “indicates success whether it rises or falls has limited value as a management tool.”

RAND, a nonprofit research institution, has worked with the DHS to develop a way to measure the effectiveness of border security. The department is expected to come up with a plan to establish goals by the end of the year.

Inconsistency in data collection in each sector of the border and the inability to count with enough certainty the number of people who cross undetected are other problems that plague the already weak system, both the GAO and the Congressional Research Service concluded.

Not having a yardstick to measure how well things are working hasn’t stopped the government from pumping more money and resources into border security. The number of Border Patrol agents doubled from nearly 10,000 in 2004 to 21,394 in 2012, according to Customs and Border Protection. The miles of fencing along the Mexican border increased 370 percent during the same period.

The immigration bill the Senate passed in June would boost border security spending by $46 billion, while doubling the number of patrol agents.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who opposed the bill, called it “one of the most massive wastes of funds in the history of the federal government.”

Testifying before a House of Representatives Homeland Security panel last month, he said the legislation “blindly throws more than $46 billion in resources at the border, and contains absolutely no mechanism to ensure that these resources will be effective or properly implemented.”

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who backed the measure, said it would improve border security.

Christopher Wilson, an associate at the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, criticized the bill’s more boots-on-the-ground approach.

“If you look at the data, you can see that each agent makes only 3.5 apprehensions annually,” he said. “By adding more people, we are essentially paying someone to just drive around.”

Estimating the flow of people and goods across the border is complex.

“We are talking about measuring illicit activity, which by definition is hidden,” Wilson said.

The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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