A immigration reform bill set to be unveiled in the Senate next week will require the federal government meet certain border security benchmarks before moving forward with another part of the legislation -- a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The benchmarks: an operational border security plan, a completed border fence, a national employment verification system and a way to better track exits at airports and seaports.
The border security plan will need to accomplish two things, specifically: Border Patrol will need to have 100 percent surveillance of the border and demonstrate 90 percent effectiveness in catching people who are crossing illegally into the U.S.
To find out whether those goals are realistic, I spoke with David Shirk, a political science professor at the University of San Diego who testified about the border at a Senate committee hearing last month.
Drones and inexpensive infrared cameras would be able to provide surveillance, according to Shirk. He prefers that approach over adding more Border Patrol agents.
The number of Border Patrol agents has doubled in the past seven years, with 21,370 agents on payroll in the 2012 fiscal year.
"In my view, we can throw more and more manpower at the problem and we're not going to see significant results," he said. "I don't personally believe that they can be much more effective."
But the bigger issue, Shirk says, is what ground surveillance actually accomplishes:
"You still have people who are coming in tunnels, who are coming in boats, who are coming in automobiles through the ports of entry, and we have no sense of what the proportions are."
According to reports, the Senate bill will require Border Patrol to become 90 percent effective in enforcement along certain high-risk parts of the border.
But first, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees Border Patrol, will have to come up with a numerical way to gauge effectiveness. At a Senate committee hearing in February, the head of DHS said that a new system to measure border security, called the Border Condition Index, was behind schedule.
"The Border Condition Index was a project we undertook because we thought just measuring apprehensions at the border was not in and of itself a total measure of what life was like at the border," Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano said. "You needed to look at things like property values and crime rates, and things of that sort, for the seven million or so people, particularly who live along the U.S.-Mexico border."
"That is, as it turns out, a very difficult thing to do in any kind of statistically significant way," she said.
However, Shirk thinks part of the reason we don't have a good understanding about effectiveness on the border is because Border Patrol doesn't track or release key stats.
For example, Border Patrol records apprehensions -- the number of people caught trying to cross the border illegally -- but they don't release the number of repeat crossers, citing privacy issues, according to Shirk.
Shirk says that the problem could be avoided by giving each person a unique ID number. That way we'd know how many of the agency's 364,768 apprehensions in the 2012 fiscal year were repeat crossers. Such an approach could raise privacy concerns from civil rights groups, but Shirk thinks there needs to be some way to find out how many people are crossing multiple times.
An email to Border Patrol on Friday was not immediately returned.
The Department of Homeland Security should compile public statistics on the number of undocumented immigrants in the country who enter the country legally and overstay visas, according to Shirk. Once you know how many people are coming in legally (and then becoming undocumented), you can get a better idea of how many people are crossing the border.
Can the Federal Government Meet These Marks in 10 Years?
Shirk thinks it's possible, but he doesn't think it's the best use of resources or the best way to confront illegal immigration.
The federal government spent nearly $18 billion on immigration enforcement in the 2012 fiscal year, and the Senate immigration bill reported authorizes as much as $3.5 billion more for border enforcement over the first five years of the ten-year plan, with the possibility of funding increases.
"If we would rather put our money into that than our education system, and our healthcare system, and our roads and all of the things that make this country an economic superpower," he said, "then you can do it."