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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

This week, we've been exploring an issue that has jumped up a few spots on the agenda here in Washington - immigration. Congress and the Obama administration have hinted they're ready to deal with the issue in a comprehensive way next year. That's a big change coming after a decade of congressional mandates focused on securing the U.S.-Mexico border. So today, we look at how well those mandates have worked and just how we know if the border is secure.

Here's NPR's Ted Robbins.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: President Reagan in 1984.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: It is true our borders are out of control.

ROBBINS: California Governor Pete Wilson in 1994.

PETE WILSON: I'm suing to force the federal government to control the border.

ROBBINS: President Obama last year.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Government has a responsibility to enforce the law and secure our borders.

ROBBINS: Since the mid-1980s, the Border Patrol has quintupled in size, going from about 4,000 to more than 20,000 agents. The government has built some 700-miles of fencing and vehicle barriers. It's placed thousands of ground sensors, lights, radar towers and cameras along the border.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTERS)

ROBBINS: And Customs and Border Protection is now flying drones and manned helicopters to locate smugglers and rescue stranded immigrants.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He's in blue jeans and white shoes. Most of the other guys are in dark colors or camouflage...

ROBBINS: So here's the question: Is the Southwest border secure? The number of illegal crossers apprehended is at a 40-year low. The weak job market in the U.S. and an improving economy in Mexico are partly responsible. The amount of drugs being seized continues near record highs. Yet, violent crime in border cities on the U.S. side has gone down.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO: If I were a police chief of a major city and I came in and I said we had reduced crime in four years by 70, 80 percent, people would say that's a great job, you know, you're a great police chief. If you took that and applied it to what's been going on along the Southwest border, you'd have to say objectively the same thing.

ROBBINS: More and more people are realizing that illegal immigration is tied directly to the broken legal immigration system. People come for work without visas because they can't easily get visas. Employers who need guest workers say it's a long, frustrating, costly process to get the workers.

Here's an analogy. Imagine immigration, especially from Latin America, as a two-lane residential street with a 20-mile an hour speed limit. Over the decades, it's grown to an eight-lane superhighway but the speed limit is still 20-miles an hour. That is, visas for needed workers have not risen along with the traffic.

DAN KOWALSKI: If you want to keep it at 20-miles an hour you have to put a cop every 20-feet. And that's what the secure-the-border-first people are in effect trying to do.

ROBBINS: Dan Kowalski is a Texas-based immigration attorney and editor of Bender's Immigration Bulletin. He says demanding border security first is backwards.

KOWALSKI: You need to line the border with Border Patrol, shoulder to shoulder. And that's just the wrong way to do it. It's too expensive. It's easier to fix the numbers rather than militarizing the border.

ROBBINS: Because the immigration system is so byzantine, up to half the estimated 11 million people illegally in the U.S. now came in legally, then overstayed their visas. No amount of border security would have stopped that. Congress still wants to know whether all the resources along the border are working. There is no single objective measure of border security. Until two years ago, DHS used something called Operational Control.

SENATOR-ELECT JEFF FLAKE: In essence, it basically means if someone sneaks across you have a reasonable expectation of catching them.

ROBBINS: Arizona Republican Senator-elect Jeff Flake wants DHS to keep using that measure. The House has passed a bill requiring DHS to use it.

FLAKE: We're talking about something that is achievable and measurable.

ROBBINS: But DHS says it's obsolete. It only counts territory where actual Border Patrol agents are located. DHS says something it calls the Border Security Index will take into account other things as well - areas covered by technology, air power, the rate of violent crime. It's been almost three years since that new index was announced. It hasn't been implemented yet.

Even the Government Accountability Office said last year that DHS needs to do a better job reporting its effectiveness on the border. But even taking that into account, almost everyone agrees the border is more secure than it was 20 or even 10 years ago.

Secretary Napolitano says people who demand complete border security before immigration reform are not being realistic.

NAPOLITANO: There's no border in the world that doesn't have some form of migration, legal and illegal. So saying it has to be zero is like saying, well, we have to put the United States, you know, under some kind of Tupperware container and seal it off. That's not how our country operates.

ROBBINS: Many lawmakers who've been blocking it now seem to realize that some sort of comprehensive immigration reform is necessary. The political reality is that more border security, or at least more accountability, is still likely to be part of any legislation.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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