Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have promised to complete a 1,950-mile fence. Michele Bachmann wants a double fence. Ron Paul pledged to secure the nation’s southern border by any means necessary. Rick Perry says he can secure it without a fence.
A border that is sealed off to all illegal immigrants and drugs flowing north is a promise none of them could keep.
Governor Perry, the governor of a state that makes up roughly 65% of America’s border with Mexico, knows that. What he’s actually pledging is achieving “operational control” of the border, defined by the U.S. Border Patrol as areas where it can detect, respond to and interdict illegal activity either at the border or after entry into the U.S.
The U.S. Border Patrol says 873 miles of the border, about 44%, are under operational control. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said that “the border is better now than it ever has been.”
Even getting this far required bolstering the ranks of the Border Patrol to the highest levels ever, nearly double the 9,500 in 2004. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a record number of agents on the border. Five Predator drones patrol strategic parts of it, with a sixth coming by the end of the year. About 650 miles of fencing has been constructed, and 1,200 National Guard soldiers dispatched last year to Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico have had their deployment extended through the end of 2011.
Last week, Mr. Gingrich signed a pledge to build a fence stretching the length of the border by 2013. That may help him recover from a statement that illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for many years should be allowed to stay in the country.
Gov. Perry has opposed the fence, saying it would take ten to fifteen years to build, cost $30 billion, and wouldn’t work anyway. He wants to flood the border with more National Guard troops. He also wants to build fencing in high-traffic areas and make better use of surveillance. Gov. Perry claims that would mean operational control by January 2014.
Mr. Romney, meanwhile, has publicly agreed with Perry that tackling larger immigration policy reform is impossible without first securing the border.
U.S. authorities already have made strides toward that goal. The number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. peaked at 12 million in 2007, but then dropped by almost 1 million through 2009, and has largely held steady since then at about 11.1 million.
Apprehensions of illegal immigrants have fallen. In 2011, the Border Patrol captured the lowest number of illegal immigrants on the southwestern border in four decades.
The U.S. economy makes would-be illegal immigrants less likely to come. Those who do must contend with Mexico’s drug war, which has seen cartel gunmen slaughter people heading north and dump their bodies in mass graves. The trip is now so risky that the number of illegal immigrants using pricey people smugglers has spiked.
Spillover into the U.S. of Mexican drug violence is difficult to measure. El Paso, Texas, ranks among the safest cities in the U.S., even though it’s across from violence-torn Ciudad Juarez.