When is the border secure? If you have no interest in immigration reform, perhaps never

border-jumpingSome of the more interesting exchanges in Secretary Napolitano’s testimony today before the Senate Judiciary Committee came when discussing the security of the southwest border, whether it’s “secure enough,” or what it would take to completely secure it. By all accounts, border security is at historic highs, with measures of illegal crossings being near 40-year lows.

Whether this is a “secure” border at this point depends essentially on your underlying motivations. That is, if you support immigration reform or in general aren’t interested in engaging in border panic as a political strategy, then these results speak for themselves, and it’s time to do immigration reform (not that it necessarily wasn’t time before); if you don’t support immigration reform or find border panic politically advantageous, then there’s more that could be done at the southwest border.

Jeff Sessions is in the latter group.

“I truly believe had this administration done a better job at enforcement…you would be in a much stronger position with the American people to ask for a more broad solution to the problem”

It’s unclear what further steps could he could be talking about, since (as Secretary Napolitano said) the Administration has produced historic border-security results while operating under an unreformed legal framework that isn’t primed to deal with today’s immigration enforcement problems. But the fact that Sessions isn’t clear about what he wants is exactly the point.

In theory there’s always more that could be done to secure the border. If you have a reasonable and evenhanded view of this, as some Senate Republicans do, then you see that there’s been substantial progress on border security and interior enforcement, you argue that you can’t really expect anything else, and you cite this as justification to move on to other parts of the overall border/immigration problem. If you don’t have an interest in adopting a level view, or you don’t want the other parts of the overall border/immigration problem to be addressed, then there is a potentially infinite well of problems at the border you can dive into, and not serious enough attention has been paid to this. It doesn’t matter what has been done, and it doesn’t matter that (as Secretary Napolitano said) there are other extremely important parts of the equation, such as interior enforcement and workplace enforcement — measures that would be improved by changes to the legal framework that would be part of a comprehensive package. That doesn’t matter because you can always hire the extra Border Patrol agent, up to the point that the southwest border is hermetically sealed, and the last attempted illegal crossing occurred so long ago it is lost to history.

Except that the southwest border cannot be hermetically sealed. The ideal of a border is that there is perfect control over what crosses it, but this is not the reality of a border. The inner-German border during the Cold War, which had East German guards preventing people from escaping to West Germany by shooting them on sight, had an average of 1,000 illegal crossings per year. In such a situation, Sessions would probably still be complaining.

The fallacy of coming up with “metrics” to measure border security, so that we can all agree on when it’s secure enough to do anything else about immigration, is that concern about how secure the border is springs eternal from people like Sessions, no matter how “secure” the border actually is. People who are willing in principle to think the border is relatively secure probably already do, based on today’s metrics.



  1. Pingback: There is actually some good news in the border security discussion | Immigration Reheated.
  2. Pingback: Calling it a “humanitarian crisis” may have unintended consequences | Immigration Reheated.

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