This week has been a telling one for those of us who follow border security closely. Congress and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have made a series of bold moves that arguably make our borders less secure. At the same time, the changes will be hailed by some as overdue upgrades to a flawed border management policy that built fences between neighbors and sought to imprison illegal aliens for ‘just’ entering the country.

America’s Sheriff Demoted

The first of these changes was the revelation that DHS has taken steps to revoke Maricopa, AZ, Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s ability to arrest and detain under federal law illegal immigrants encountered in the course of his normal law enforcement activities. This authority, known as the 287(g) program, was aggressively promoted by the Bush Administration and state and local law enforcement advocates (including former Governor Napolitano) as a relatively low cost way to increase manpower intended to address illegal immigration.

While critics have always stated concerns that 287(g) could be used by some law enforcement officials to harass anyone they think could be an illegal alien, the program was considered highly successful and resulted in few tangible complaints. The popularity of the program, in the eyes of federal officials, appears to have eroded under a steady stream of pressure from illegal immigrant advocates who want all enforcement efforts stopped. It looks like America’s Toughest Sheriff, as he likes to be called, has become one of the first casualties in rolling back the previously successful enforcement activities. Ironically, Sheriff Joe will be able to continue detaining illegal immigrants under an Arizona state law advocated and signed by Governor Napolitano that makes being in the country illegally a state crime. The only difference appears to be that he will have to, in his own words, “drive them back to the border [him]self” instead of handing them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for prosecution and removal.

Motel Napolitano

Also this week DHS announced that they would begin housing so-called low-risk illegal immigrants in refurbished hotels instead of prisons. This change arises from a myriad of complaints over the now shuttered T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Texas which was created to house families and small children who illegally enter the United States. Prior to the establishment of the Hutto facility, DHS was forced to release illegal immigrants traveling with children due to a lack of adequate detention space. Therefore, the ever crafty and ruthless smugglers decided to place the lives of children in danger by using them as decoys in border crossings to evade detention if apprehended. While the intention behind the Hutto facility was noble, it was universally panned by immigration and child advocates alike.

Hopefully the change announced by DHS is intended to create an alternative holding facility to protect children. However, the additional cost incurred by such a ‘posh’ program could result in significantly fewer detention beds available to ICE. The loss of one detention bed is exacerbated because most detainees only spend a fraction of a year in detention – as little as 20 days. This means the loss of one bed could mean 18 additional illegal immigrants being released each year without removal.

No Mas Fence

It is hardly a surprise that Congress recently voted to knock down an amendment by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint that would have required the construction of an additional 300 miles of border fence in Texas. Given the ongoing interest in stimulus projects, I am a little shocked that the idea of essentially digging a ditch and building a fence in it did not appeal to the same people in Congress who gave billions to the auto industry and millions to shady community organizers.

I do believe that tactical infrastructure (what we like to call border fence and vehicle barriers) is a useful deterrent in certain border situations. However, it is just that – tactical. It is intended to be used only where it gains an advantage: generally in urban areas where the ability of an illegal immigrant to abscond once detected crossing the border is measured in seconds. These urban areas are where most of the fencing built in the last three years has been placed – on the borders near El Paso, Yuma, San Diego, and Nogales. Much of the fence in the DeMint amendment would have gone to areas where the gained tactical advantage would be minimal given the Rio Grande River and barren inhospitable terrain.