Border security trips up immigration debate


The Republican governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, calls her state “the gateway to America for drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and crime.” She blames the federal government for failing to secure the border with Mexico.

Her Democratic predecessor, Janet Napolitano, now the country’s Homeland Security secretary, counters that the Southwestern border “is as secure now as it has ever been.”

The dispute over just how much border security is enough looms as the biggest impediment to any attempt by the Obama administration and Congress to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.


Republicans say they can’t support an immigration bill until the border is under control. The Obama administration points out that crime in U.S. border cities is down, as are illegal border crossings.

There should be room for compromise: One side would get more resources for border enforcement, and the other would get a program allowing migrants to cross the border to work and a path to legalization for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants residing in the U.S.

But so far, Washington is not even close.

Last month, President Obama nodded toward such an arrangement by agreeing to dispatch 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and seek half a billion dollars in additional funds for border enforcement.

That came after 18 months in which the Obama administration has outdone its predecessor on border enforcement spending and on deportations of illegal immigrants, all in an effort to build support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

None of it, however, has been enough for Republicans in Congress, including those, such as Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, who previously supported immigration changes.

McCain, facing a primary challenge, said Obama’s plan was insufficient, and he tried unsuccessfully to pass an amendment in the Senate calling for 6,000 troops and $2 billion in spending.

Napolitano, in an interview, expressed frustration about the Republicans’ singular focus on border security.

“Their position has evolved to be, ‘We don’t even want to talk about immigration reform unless you secure — read: seal — the border,’ ” she said. “And the definition of what securing the border means keeps changing, and that then becomes a reason not to address the real underlying issue, which is immigration reform.”

The raw statistics don’t support the notion, as Brewer put it in April, that the U.S. side of the Mexico border is awash in “uncontrolled … horrendous violence.”

Mexico has seen a wave of killings and violence, but crime on the U.S. side is lower than it has been in previous years. In fact, the four largest American cities with the lowest rates of violent crime are all in border states, according to a new FBI report: San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso and Austin, Texas.

Illegal immigration is also down significantly, partly because of the U.S. economic recession.

Still, recent high-profile incidents have fueled perceptions that the drug violence in Mexico is spilling over. They include the March killing of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz, shot on his property in what authorities suspect was an encounter with a drug smuggling scout.

There also has been a dramatic rise in home invasions in Arizona in which suspected gang members target drug stash houses — “mostly trafficker against trafficker,” said Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney for Arizona.

But it’s unclear whether border enforcement can have much effect on those trends. Experience has shown that fences, technology and patrols have slowed illegal crossings in some areas only to steer traffic to other, more remote stretches.

The projected cost of border fencing is about $5 million a mile. That would be a price tag of nearly $9 billion for the 1,700 miles of unfenced border.

With huge budget deficits looming, there is little appetite for such spending. But most political observers believe that for an immigration bill to stand any chance in Congress, the Obama administration is going to have to convince more Americans that violence and illegal immigration have been mostly quelled.

“It is impossible for me and any other serious Democrat to get this body to move forward until we prove to the American people we can secure our borders,” Graham told Napolitano when she testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April. “But once we get there, comprehensive reform should come up, will come up.”