Friday, April 29, 2011

The Numbers Game on the Border

Border fence near Ft. Hancock, Texas/Photo by Tom Barry

The Border Patrol is losing a game of its own making.

For decades the Border Patrol has brandished arrest and drug seizure statistics to demonstrate its success in controlling the border – and to show Congress that more funds are needed next year. Numbers substituted for strategy and policy.

Year after year, decade after decade, border progress has been measured by the number of illegal aliens apprehended, the number deported and the millions of pounds of illegal drugs seized. When the numbers surge higher, this is cited as clear evidence of success. When numbers are lower, the Border Patrol also claims victory, pointing to the decline as evidence of the success of its strategy to prevent illegal entry through deterrence. 

For the Border Patrol, numbers have been key to a win-win scenario of border control.

This heads-you-win, tails-you-win trick of tracking border progress continues today, albeit with variations. Regular reports of the numbers of criminal aliens imprisoned and deported compose part of the litany of Border Patrol and ICE’s great achievements. 

The rising number of immigrants labeled as criminal aliens and the number of imprisoned immigrants slated for removal are offered as data to support the DHS’ contention of its progress toward protecting the border from potential terrorists and criminals.

But these boastful reports are never accompanied with explanations of how many of these criminal aliens and immigrant inmates have achieved their new status as a result of DHS policies and operations that criminalize immigrants for illegal entry and other immigration violations.  Nor do the DHS border and immigration agencies bother to explain that many of the newly categorized criminal aliens are being deported for personal drug violations—yet another way the government has found to criminalize immigration and enforce immigration consequences (removal) for even misdemeanor offenses.

As Peter Andreas observes in Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict, the ambiguity of ICE and Border Patrol’s body count and drug seizure numbers “provides a mechanism to manipulate and distort the evaluation process, obscure and gloss over failure, and rationalize more funding and a continued escalation of drug enforcement.”

Lately, though, the Border Patrol – along with the Department of Homeland Security – is finding that its numbers just don’t add up for many anti-immigration activists and border hawks. That was the case last week when Arizona border sheriffs Larry Dever and Paul Babeu – from Cochise and Pinal Counties charged that the Border Patrol was cooking the books to support DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s contention that the border is more secure than ever.

“There is a perception that the border is worse now than it ever has been," said Napolitano when recently in El Paso. "That is wrong. The border is better now than it ever has been."

Border sheriff Larry Dever takes strong exception to that positive assessment, telling Fox News: “Janet Napolitano says the border is more secure than it’s ever been. I’ve been here for 60 years, and I’m telling you that’s not true.”

Along with his colleague Paul Babeu (who cofounded with Dever), Sheriff  Dever has mounted a two-pronged assault on the border numbers game.

One line of assault is his calling Border Patrol apprehension statistics into question, charging that the Border Patrol is chasing illegal border crossers back into Mexico rather than arresting them. Border Patrol and DHS officials point to a dramatic drop in arrests as an indicator of increased border security.

A more penetrating critique concerns the very concept of border security.

The Border Patrol’s numbers game with apprehension statistics has long sidelined the more pertinent number: How many illegal border crossers successful evade border control operations? But since successful illegal crossings can’t be easily counted, the Border Patrol understandably relies on apprehensions to measure immigration pressure on the border.

This unknown gap between arrests and successful illegal crossings was generally accepted when border control was solely about immigrants and contraband. But since the post-9/11 elevation of border control to border security this partial control is harder to justify.

Under the new security framework of border operations, the Border Patrol says it is protecting the nation against “dangerous people and goods.” By classifying all illegal border crossers and all illegal goods as “dangerous,” as the Border Patrol does, the agency opens itself up to criticism from border hawks like Dever who contend that all illegal crossings threaten the nation’s security.  In other words, there can be no half-measures or compromises when it comes to national security.

“We do not know who’s crossing that border, but that anyone who wants to can. That’s the message our nation needs to hear, that anyone who wants to can, and is. And our own Department of Homeland Security does not have clear definition of what securing the border even means," Dever told Fox.

“I’ll tell Napolitano, in spite of all of your declarations and efforts to the contrary, things are not safe. No, they are not secure,” said Dever. “You can use your numbers to say it’s more secure, but it does not define a sense of safety or well-being. You can say it’s more secure, but it’s more dangerous than ever.”

Neither Dever nor his Babeu can produce the numbers to support their alarmism about the security and safety of the border. Indeed, the crime levels along the border have been dropping and are much lower than the national average, and there are no numbers to support their fear-mongering about terrorists crossing the border.

But DHS and the Border Patrol are still vulnerable to the critiques of the border hawks. By sticking with the ill-considered security framework for border operations, they have raised unrealistic expectations that the southwestern border should be truly secured – meaning sealed against all illegal traffic.

Despite the new border security framing, they have persisted in measuring the success of border control with numbers they are unrelated to national or homeland security, namely the number of immigrant arrests and number of kilos of marijuana seized.

It’s time that Border Patrol and DHS elevate the debate about the border by stating clearly that its metrics of arrests and seizures are products of policies out of its control, namely drug prohibition and immigration pressures. 

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