Earlier this week I joined President Obama and others in El Paso, Texas, as he reported on the tremendous progress we have made in securing the Southwest border and transforming our immigration enforcement efforts over the last two years even while we wait for Congress to address immigration reform.
I know this border well. I was raised in New Mexico. I have spent most of my adult life in Arizona as the U.S. attorney, attorney general, and as a two-term governor. I have walked the border, flown it, ridden it on horseback, and worked with border communities from Brownsville to San Diego. So I speak from personal experience when I say that the Southwest Border Initiative that we launched in March 2009 is the most comprehensive and dedicated effort to strengthen border security that this country has ever deployed.
We have doubled the size of the Border Patrol from where it was in 2004. There are more Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at the border than ever before. We have completed all but three miles of fencing called for by Congress. We have strategically deployed thousands of technology assets along the border. For the first time, unmanned aircraft cover the Southwest border from California to Texas — providing critical aerial surveillance assistance to personnel on the ground. And our relationships with our federal, state, local and tribal partners, as well as our counterparts in Mexico, have never been closer or more integrated.
Every statistical measure shows these heightened border enforcement efforts are working. Apprehensions, which is how we measure attempts to cross the border illegally, have decreased by 36 percent in the last two years and are less than a third of their all-time high a decade ago. Over the last two and a half years, we’ve seized 31 percent more drugs, 75 percent more currency, and 64 percent more weapons than the previous two and a half years. Perhaps most important, crime rates in border communities have held steady or dropped in the past decade and four of the biggest cities in America with the lowest rates of violent crime are in border states — San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso and Austin.
Yet, what happens at the border is inseparable from immigration enforcement in our country’s interior. That’s why the Department of Homeland Security has transformed our interior enforcement efforts to make them smarter and more effective.
In the last two years, ICE has prioritized the identification and removal of illegal immigrants that pose the greatest threats to our communities and public safety. During this period, the percentage of those removed who are convicted criminals has risen 71 percent.
We are also prioritizing enforcement actions against employers who knowingly hire illegal labor. Since January 2009, we have levied more fines and debarred more employers than during the entire eight years of the previous administration.
Even as we enforce our laws, however, we must acknowledge that the laws themselves need reform. After all, we are a nation of immigrants as well as a nation of laws. And there is no question that we need the talents and contributions of immigrants in order to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. This has always been the story of our country, and it will continue to be.
As the president stated in El Paso, we must fix our broken immigration system in order for our country to compete in the 21st century economy. I hear frequently from business leaders that the current immigration system simply does not work in today’s global economy, and that we must do more to make it easier for the best and brightest who come to America to attend our world-class universities to remain and start businesses and create jobs in the United States.
Congress must act, and act soon, to change and improve our laws. Some have said reform must wait until we meet benchmarks for border security. Yet, we have met and exceeded these benchmarks.
As the president and I saw in El Paso, the reality is that the Southwest border is simply not the same as it was four years ago, or even two years ago — in terms of manpower, technology and resources. And more is on their way so that our current efforts are sustained and we never again lose control of the border.
The plain fact is that we must fix our immigration laws at the same time as we continue deploying historic levels of resources to the Southwest border. These two requirements — border security and immigration reform — are inextricably intertwined.
Reform will permit the Border Patrol to better focus its resources on illegal immigrants who are national security and public safety threats and will allow ICE to levy penalties that truly deter companies that egregiously and repeatedly violate our immigration laws.
The president and I, as well as other members of the administration, have met with police chiefs, sheriffs, CEO’s and community advocates across the nation over the last two and a half years, and the consensus is striking. In order to further strengthen our security, enhance the integrity and fairness of our immigration system, and compete in the 21st century economy, Congress should act. Only with bipartisan congressional action can we comprehensively reform and improve our immigration system.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Janet Napolitano is secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
This essay is available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.