Is military-style surge at the border really the worth the price?

U.S. Border Patrol agent Jerry Conlin looks to the north near where the border wall ends as it separates Tijuana, Mexico, left, and San Diego, right.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

Supporters of a bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill appeared to have cleared a major hurdle this week after senators agreed to pump billions of dollars into border security programs in an effort to win over key Republican votes.

The border security amendment calls for doubling the number of border patrol agents from 20,000 to 40,000, expanding drone surveillance and completing 700 miles worth of fencing along the U.S.–Mexico border. The full Senate is expected to vote on the deal next week.

Clearly, the compromise is a last minute effort to save the so-called Gang of Eight bill after some Republicans expressed concerns that the bill didn’t far enough in tightening border security - considered a precursor by many to any legalization program.


But is the cost of the compromise too much? The militarized-style surge at the border is expected to carry a $30 billion price tag. The monies to pay for that would be covered by new taxes and other revenue that the Congressional Budget Office has determined would be generated by the bill.

Yet even if it immigrants foot the bill for this spending plan, does it make sense? I’m not sure it does.

Consider, for example, that the number of immigrants attempting to enter the United States illegally appears to be at a 40-year low. Yet the plan calls for adding so many new agents that if all were deployed at once it might well resemble a Border Patrol version of Hands Across America, with agent stationed about every 250 feet along the border, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

Moreover, the government already spends more on immigration enforcement agencies than all other federal agencies combined, according to the Migration Policy Institute. And deportation levels are at a record high with more than 400,000 immigrants sent packing in 2012.

No one dispute that border security is a legitimate national security goal. But let’s not kid ourselves, the current debate in Congress isn’t really focused on that goal. If it were, lawmakers would be asking a lot of questions that have yet to be raised in the Senate or the House. Questions such as those raised by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Edward Alden in a 2012: “What are the goals of border control? How much is enough? How much can we afford? How can the economic costs of tighter border enforcement best be mitigated? How can better legal immigration and temporary work programs help to reduce further the illegal migration problem? Unfortunately, in the current political environment such questions are not being asked. Instead, Congress and the administration continue to be focused on the elusive goal of creating a perfectly secure border through enforcement measures alone.”


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