The good news: While supporters of immigration reform have been frustrated with increasing security demands in the Senate, I see some good (or at least somewhat productive) news. If — if — you can get 70+ Senators to finally agree on what would make for a “secure border,” as some of these proposals offer the prospect of doing, then that is a possibly transformative political achievement, one which not only energizes immigration reform now but offers to change the border security debate. Arguing about border security has usually been like trying to nail jello to a wall: Nothing will stick, since there has been no specificity among the “secure the border” crowd about what’s needed to meet their demands. The amorphousness of this argument is a great tool for people who just don’t want to see reform happen anyway: They have up until now basically gotten away with an ever-lengthening list of security demands that has no defined endpoint. If any kind of endpoint makes it into law, that changes things in an important way. It won’t stop people from saying the border isn’t secure if and when those goals are met, but it no longer means that those claims have the political traction to stall everything else.
The bad news: Meeting those goals might be a fool’s errand. I differ with some in that I think that a 90% effectiveness rate could possibly be an achievable goal, as long as the “triggers” aren’t constructed in an extremely nitpicky way, and given the huge new investments in border security that some of the Republican amendments are proposing. (Those are both significant caveats.) Why is that standard so important, though? The idea you often hear from legislators is that they want to make sure that if there’s a legalization in the next decade, there’s not going to be a big wave of unauthorized immigration. This view seems not to understand that illegal flows aren’t alone determined by security resources in any sense. What’s happening in the economy is really important, and cannot be legislated. This strikes at the problem with the whole discourse that the “government has failed to secure the border,” when the real problem is that the border has failed to be “securable,” according to their definitions. Further steps can be taken, but the idea that the border is not secure because the government has failed is a fiction — rather, it isn’t “secure” because there is a first-world country sitting next to a third-world one, divided by a 2,000 mile-long, remote border, and economic conditions draw people from the poorer one into the richer one. What the government chooses to do is a layer on top of this foundation, and if the government alone could determine what the flows are, then this issue wouldn’t exist. Anyway. Second, as discussed before on this blog, there’s actually no evidence that legalization programs have any effect on future flows of unauthorized immigration; the “amnesty-seeking” immigrants that right-wing opponents of the bill fear haven’t proven to be anything but a myth, based on the current state of research.
Moving on: Besides, what does a 90% effectiveness rate get you? It’s not perfectly clear, in part because it’s difficult to gauge deterrence with it, and another because it is a rate. Look at the Tucson sector, the busiest one on the border in terms of unauthorized traffic. Based on known-flow data from FY2011, the “effectiveness rate” there that year was above 86%. Not too far off the imagined target of people advocating the “hard triggers” approach. But there were an estimated 25,000 people who got away — based on the known flow, which probably underestimates the amount of successful crossers by about a third.
The lament entangled in all of this is, of course, that the border-security provisions and the legalization provisions have become linked to an extent that doesn’t seem justified based on facts. Border security may be worth doing for its own reasons, but there’s not an established link between legalization and greater border-security problems. There is a pretty clear link between unauthorized crossings and enforcement efforts (enforcement tempers the traffic), and unauthorized crossings and economic conditions (employment opportunities and wage differentials increase traffic) — but there is no strong link between unauthorized crossings and the prospect of getting legalized later. Linking the two pieces of policy doesn’t make a ton of inherent sense.
Given that, why are we even having this discussion? Because the imagined “grand bargain” on immigration has increasingly moved in that direction. Back in the 2000s, the immigration bill would be “comprehensive,” meaning we’d do everything at once — improve security and legalize at the same time, but whether one happened wouldn’t depend on the other. Then many Republicans backed out of that approach, saying that the border needed to be secured first, without really specifying what that meant. Democrats derided this claim, but after the 2008 election actually went about trying to improve border security to get Republicans back to the table. Now Republicans are back at the table, and many are claiming that the border still isn’t secure.
But that isn’t really “news” — this dynamic has been going on for years. What is news is that at least now the security camp is specifying what it wants. And if that works, it’s a political breakthrough that promises at least a slowing of this obfuscatory cycle.