WASHINGTON — By most, if not all, measures, President Barack Obama has surpassed his predecessors in ramping up security along the nearly 2,000-mile southern border of the United States.
There’s more money being spent, an increase in border agents and more fencing. The number of people being deported is up and the number of people apprehended trying to enter the United States is down. The flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico has slowed.
Yet if Obama thought that tough action on the border would help persuade reluctant Republicans to support a rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws, he was wrong.
Some dispute Obama’s measurements, saying the government does not know the number of people that sneak across the border undetected. And while even most of Obama’s fiercest critics acknowledge that more is being done than ever before, they say it’s still not enough.
“There’s a tendency to look at what you’re doing by money you’re spending,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a group pushing to cut legal and illegal immigration. “Money can be important, but it needs to be effective.”
Border agents intercepted only 61 percent of those who tried to cross illegally into the country from Mexico, according to a Government Accountability Office report for an 18-month period ending in December 2012. An estimated 123,000 turned back to Mexico. Another 86,000 successfully entered the United States.
The contentious issue of border security – and whether it should be tied to providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants – has left an already unproductive Congress stuck on an immigration overhaul despite Obama’s efforts.
“There was a deliberate strategy to take that issue off the table,” said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “There’s no question that they were going into the strategic effort thinking House Republicans would respond.”
But in the hyperpolarized atmosphere that is Washington these days, Republicans refuse to concede the issue to Obama and the Democrats.
The Democratic Senate wants $46 billion more for enforcement over the next 10 years in a bill that Obama supports. But the Republican House is demanding additional strategies, analyses and measurements before money is spent. Both want to ensure that 90 percent of those attempting to cross illegally are either turned back or arrested.
“We are far from having operational control of our borders, particularly the southwest border,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said earlier this year.
In his first four years, Obama increased enforcement on the border to a point that even his allies began criticizing him for deporting so many migrants and splitting up so many families. He boasts of doing more than any other president on the border and meeting – in some cases exceeding – goals set in 2007, the last time Congress seriously considered a major overhaul of immigration laws.
“Our borders now are more secure than they have ever been in history,” White House spokesman Jay Carney repeatedly says.
Here are the numbers:
– The Obama administration spent $18 billion on trying to curb illegal immigration last year – up 50 percent from the year before he was elected and now 24 percent more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to a study released this year by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that studies immigration worldwide.
– The government employed about 18,500 agents on the southern border, up 1,000 during Obama’s presidency, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
– The U.S. deported about 410,000 people last year – up 17 percent since 2008.
– About 365,000 people were apprehended trying to enter the United States last year, a 40-year low and nearly a 50 percent decrease since 2008.
And in the last four years, the United States has added more sophisticated tools to survey the border than ever before: vehicles, aircraft, watchtowers, even aerial drones. Fencing has increased from less than 200 miles to about 352 miles.
“To say this president hasn’t committed to increased enforcement is not possible,” said Kevin Johnson, an immigration policy expert who serves as dean of the University of California, Davis, School of Law.
And yet a report by the Government Accountability Office in 2011 stated that only about 44 percent of the border was under “operational control” – a measure used to indicate detection and apprehension.
Efforts to increase border security began in earnest under President Bill Clinton in the early 1990s. President George W. Bush was initially criticized for not continuing those efforts but quickly did so after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Several high-profile studies show that the number of migrants trying to enter the United States illegally from Mexico has dropped sharply, though that can’t be attributed to enforcement alone. The demand for labor fell because of the downturn in the U.S. economy as well as changes in Mexico, such as lower fertility rates and the rise of the middle class.
The Pew Hispanic Center in 2012 found that net migration – arrivals and departures to and from the United States from Mexico – had fallen to zero after decreasing for several years. “It is possible that the Mexican immigration wave will resume as the U.S. economy recovers,” the report says.
Marc Rosenblum, an immigration policy specialist for the Congressional Research Service, wrote in a 2012 report that “additional investments at the border may be met with diminishing returns.”
But some conservatives still want increased border security as well other enforcement policies that allow states to take a greater role in immigration control, compel the federal government to resume workplace raids and better track those who overstay visas.
Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that examines the consequences of immigration on the United States, said more needs to be done. “The border is one piece of larger puzzle,” he said.
Meanwhile, those who support the Senate plan accuse Republicans of changing their minds on what it means to have a secure border.
“There’s a great deal of mistrust,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group that seeks a path to citizenship for immigrants. “They moved the goalposts over the last decade.”
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