Since the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) challenging early days, when I served as Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security, we have made progress towards better border security. Our human resources, technology, intelligence fusion, and state and local cooperation haveall improved.

The number of border patrol agents has doubled to 20,700; the number of border liaison officers who work with Mexican counterparts has increased 500 percent; and most significantly, the number of border patrol apprehensions has decreased by 36 percent in the last two years.

That is an indication of our growing border control effectiveness.

While this progress should be noted, without a doubt, more needs to be accomplished. The fact is our government has operational control of less than half of the 2000-mile southwest border, and simply holding the line is not sufficient to achieve effective border security. Here are three priorities on which we should focus our border control efforts.

Accelerate resources for border control
Our control of the border has increased at the rate of 126 miles per year, which is woefully inadequate. When speeding this process, we should be intelligent in deploying resources. Rather than build a physical fence across every inch of the southwest border, we should use a combination of physical fences and barriers, human resources, and technology.

Monitor and enforce the law on visa overstays
Visa overstays account for approximately 45 percent of the illegal immigrants in the United States. As evidenced by the 9-11 terrorists, one can enter on a lawful visa but remain in the United States after the visa expires. At present, we have no effective way to tackle this challenge.

On paper, the solution is simple: have every visa visitor who departs the country check out using biometrics. While Undersecretary, I worked to develop pilot programs at airports and land borders on the exit system. It was difficult then, and I know DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has found it equally challenging. In fact, the Department has announced it is no longer pursuing the biometric exit system. It is very clear to me that this solution will never happen without the leadership, mandate and oversight of Congress.

In 2003, Congress was clear in its direction to build the U.S. Visit program, which requires a biometric check for international visitors from visa countries. It was implemented under strict congressional deadlines, timelines were clear and the oversight was ubiquitous. As a result, the system was completed on time and within budget, and it has dramatically improved the security and integrity of our immigration system. The same type of commitment and strict deadlines need to be assigned to the deployment of an exit system.

The threat to our rule of law and the integrity of our immigration system is not just the hundreds of thousands of illegal border crossings each year; it is also the hundreds of thousands who enter our country lawfully but remain illegally through visa overstays. This is just as much a part of border security as agents on the southwest border. We must adopt an exit system with greater urgency.

Reduce the power and pull of the market place for illegal employment
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should have the necessary resources to enforce immigration laws within the country, but it is just as important to give employers the tools needed to ensure the person they hire has a legal status. While we have made significant strides in this area, it is still short of a fully verifiable real-time electronic system. This should be our goal.

When a non-U.S. citizen considers all the risks and expense of illegal entry, and also realizes that once in the country they will not be able to work, that person will be less inclined to attempt illegal entry. When this type of capability is deployed, the magnet will lose its drawing power. In other words, attempts to illegally enter and exploit the United States will not be worth the risks. Our border resources can then be deployed more efficiently and we can focus on the greatest threats to our nation.

Editor’s Note: Check out the webcast and transcript of Asa Hutchinson’s testimony on border security before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

  • Janicekephart

    Thank you Mr. Hutchinson for your thoughtful commentary. One concern.  You allude to E-Verify but do not mention it by name, nor seem to support a program that is more than 99.5 percent accurate.  If you were still in the House, would you vote to make E-Verify mandatory?  Also, last year I held a closed-door roundtable with policy/government leaders on EXIT.  I thought you may be interested in the solutions/concerns put forth in that roundtable: