06/23/2013 01:58 pm ET Updated Aug 23, 2013

The Senate's Border Security Agreement: A Damaging Exercise in Political Expediency

The Senate debate on immigration reform is at risk of becoming an exercise in political expediency, untethered to the national interest or the facts on the ground. Based on the political calculation that a resounding victory on S. 744 will pressure the House to pass comprehensive reform legislation, the Senate appears poised to adopt a "border security" agreement negotiated by Sen. Robert Corker (R-Tenn.) and Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND). At an estimated cost of $40 billion, the Corker-Hoeven amendment would double the number of Border Patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexico border (to 38,405), build and fortify 700 miles of border fencing, and extensively invest in surveillance technology and equipment, including 18 aerial drones. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) has called the amendment a "breathtaking show of force," and said it would create "a virtual human fence" across the entire southern border. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-GA) has predicted it would "practically" militarize the border. And Sen. Corker has called it "almost overkill." The amendment should be rejected for several reasons.

First, it is unnecessary. The number of Border Patrol agents has doubled over the last seven years. Migrant apprehensions, long the Border Patrol's sole proxy for illegal entries, have fallen to levels not seen in more than four decades. Although arrests have climbed modestly in recent months (particularly in South Texas), these increases highlight the need for better Border Patrol "surge" capacities, not for massive additional increases in agents that DHS has neither requested nor can accommodate. Earlier this month, the Arizona Republic reported that arrests by Border Patrol agents fell (on average) from 106 in 2005, to 17 last year. In the El Paso sector, 3.5 migrants were arrested per agent last year. Tedium has become as great a threat to Border Patrol retention and morale, as dangerous work and low pay. By contrast, ports-of-entry require additional agents and infrastructure to stem illegal migration and drug trafficking into the United States, as well as the illegal, southward flow of firearms and profits to Mexican drug cartels. As currently constituted, S. 744 would address that need.

Second, the amendment may also be counter-productive. As Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) has argued, "outputs" (increased appropriations, agents and fencing) do not always translate into "outcomes" (permanently reduced illegal entries). S. 744 -- even without the Corker/Hoeven amendment -- requires the Border Patrol to arrest or turn back 90 percent of all would-be unauthorized entrants. This "outcome" may be difficult to measure and to attain, but it is already a feature of the bill. Moreover, an additional $40 billion in border enforcement spending -- taken from monies that would otherwise, according to the Congressional Budget Office, be used to reduce the federal budget deficit -- will contribute little to this "outcome" and may, in fact, make it more difficult to achieve.

Robert Warren, the former Director of the INS's Statistics Division, argues that illegal entries are not likely to increase substantially (if at all) as the U.S. economy recovers. In fact, new entries to the unauthorized population -- visa overstays and illegal border crossings -- began to fall well before the economic crisis. In addition, S. 744's expanded temporary worker and electronic employment verification programs should further reduce attempted illegal entries. By contrast, draconian increases in border enforcement may upset S. 744's balanced approach to reform and yield diminishing enforcement returns, leading to more illegal entries through ports-of-entry, more visa overstays, and fewer departures of unauthorized seasonal workers.

Third, border enforcement is no longer primarily an issue of resources, it is one of performance. The Corker/Hoeven amendment comes on the heels of sustained enforcement spending increases which, by 2012, led to combined funding levels for DHS's two immigration enforcement agencies, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), of $17.6 billion. This figure fails to include the cost of signature DHS enforcement programs that are housed outside CBP and ICE, or the substantial enforcement costs borne by other federal agencies, by the federal court system, or by states and localities. The United States spends significantly more on immigration enforcement than it does (combined) on the four major Department of Justice law enforcement agencies (including the FBI) and on its three main U.S. labor standards enforcement entities. Earlier this month, the Arizona Republic reported that the United States has spent $106 billion on border enforcement over the last five years.

Fourth, the Corker/Hoeven amendment will militarize the border at substantial cost to civil liberties. Border residents already endure long delays, stops, searches and the omnipresence of federal law enforcement agents. The level of government intrusion into the lives of U.S. residents would increase exponentially under the Corker-Hoeven agreement, and would invariably extend -- as the Border Patrol already has and as "security" measures typically do -- to other U.S. communities. It is unprecedented, for example, for U.S. communities to be monitored by unmanned drones, but it may not be for long. In addition, S. 744 will do little to counter scandalous levels of abuse of migrants by immigration agents. Indeed, large-scale Border Patrol hiring will likely lead, if past is prologue, to a dilution in the quality of agents and to increased abuses.

The Corker/Hoeven amendment might well increase the prospects for passage of comprehensive immigration reform, but its costs would be immense.