After two decades of pouring resources and technology into patrolling the U.S. border with Mexico, there are encouraging signs that Congress is about to start asking the right question: what exactly have we bought for all that money? But the administration is continuing to drag its heels.

A May 8 hearing of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on border and maritime security, entitled “Measuring Border Security,” was intended to provide some answers to the critical question of how to assess progress along the border. As the chair Candice Miller (R-MI ) put it: “When we hear terms like the border is more secure than ever, that may be so, but how do you measure it?”

The hearing featured testimony from Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher on the agency’s new 2012-2016 strategic plan, which is intended to adjust to flat budgets by focusing scarce resources on the greatest threats. But the Department of Homeland Security has yet to decide how progress under that strategy should be evaluated. The congressional agency that tracks administration performance – the Government Accountability Office – has been left waiting for DHS to explain how its performance at the border should be measured. Instead, as the GAO testimony noted, DHS “has reduced information provided to Congress and the public on program results.”

The Border Patrol has abandoned the traditional measure known as “operational control,” which as Fisher rightly pointed out was largely based on subjective evaluations by sector chiefs, and was dependent almost entirely on the level of resources (manpower and technology) in that sector. But it has yet to offer any alternative metrics, and progress in developing new measures has been unnecessarily slow.

Secretary Janet Napolitano has been promising for the past year to develop a new Border Conditions Index “to comprehensively measure security along the Southwest border and the quality of life in the region.” The BCI has always seemed a bit half-baked. As described, it would appear to mix measures of law enforcement (arrests, seizures, deterrence) that are a direct result of Border Patrol actions with quality of life measures (property values, unemployment rates) that have little or nothing to do with Border Patrol activities. And it’s not clear the BCI will ever see the light of day. Fisher suggested in response to questions that any new metrics would not be ready until at least early 2013.

Currently, the only hard measure of illegal immigration across the southwest border is the annual number of apprehensions, which measures the total number of arrests made by the Border Patrol. The huge decline in apprehensions, which are down five-fold from their peak a decade ago, indicates that many fewer individuals are trying to cross illegally. Falling illegal entry is one reason that net migration to the United States from Mexico has essentially halted over the past several years. But apprehensions are only a partial measure.

Marc Rosenblum, immigration policy specialist for the Congressional Research Service, laid out in his testimony some of the elements that could be part of a more comprehensive approach to measuring border security. Apprehensions data could be supplemented by estimating the probability of apprehension (the percentage of would-be crossers who are stopped) and smuggling fees. Mexican survey data has suggested that illegal migrants have become less likely to try to re-enter. None of these provides a perfect measure of enforcement effectiveness, but they would help build a more complete picture for Congress and the public.

Increased enforcement also comes with costs, he pointed out. The Border Patrol budget has grown from $232 million in 1989 to $3.6 billion in FY2012 – a 750 percent real increase after inflation. And there are an array of indirect costs, including increased crime, smuggling and migrant deaths along the border, slowing of legimitate commerce, and inadequate funding for inspections at the legal ports of entry.

For two decades, the only issue for border security has been “how much more?” A shift in the debate is overdue. Congress should be demanding the best answers on what all those enforcement dollars have purchased, and insist on better performance measures in the future.

  • Al Feingold

    That 2012?…., change some names & place 1970.., 80…., etc on the header!
    Please…, the problems on the SW Border as old as well.., since border established! This administration hell bent on showing THATs the only problem!