The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Want tighter border security? You’re already getting it.

Legislators have failed to pass a sweeping immigration overhaul for more than five years. But there's one piece of the 2007 immigration reform bill that they've managed to accomplish: pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into border security.

Under the Senate's new blueprint for reform, the legalization of undocumented immigrants would only happen if the government "finally commit[s] the resources needed to secure the border," as well as strict visa enforcement for legal immigrants. It's a provision that's similar to Bush's 2007 immigration bill, which also made legalization contingent on beefed-up border security.

The Senate's language suggests that the government has held back from devoting money, equipment and personnel to border security. In fact, even though the 2007 immigration bill ultimately failed, we've nevertheless hit nearly all of the targets that it established for increased border security—except for achieving absolute "operational control" of the border and mandatory detention of all border-crossers who've been apprehended.

The 2007 bill sought to increase the number of Border Patrol agents to 20,000; in FY 2011, we hit 21,444 agents.

The 2007 bill proposed to erect 300 miles of vehicle barriers, 370 miles of fencing, 105 radar and camera towers, and four drones; by 2012, we completed 651 miles of vehicle fencing—including 352 miles of pedestrian fencing and 299 vehicle barriers—300 towers, and nine drones, according to Customs and Border Patrol.

The 2007 bill asked for the resources for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain up to 31,500 people per day; ICE now has funding to detain up to 34,000 individuals at any time, per FY 2012 appropriations.

Finally, the 2007 bill also called for what's known as "operational control" of the entire border, which the 2006 Secure Fence Act defined as "the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband."

Experts generally agree that "absolute" control of the border is practically impossible, so DHS has instead defined "effective" operational control as "the ability to detect, respond, and interdict illegal activity at the border or after entry into the United States," as a Congressional Research Service report explains. By that definition, the government had 57 percent of the southern border under "effective control," up from 31 percent in 2007, due to the new border security measures that were implemented since then. (The 2007 bill also called for mandatory federal implementation of workplace immigration enforcement measures like E-Verify; these have only been put into effect by certain states.)

Such enforcement has come with a large price tag: Last year, Congress funded Customs and Border Protection at $11.7 billion—64 percent more than FY 2006 and $262 million more than in FY 2011, despite the new climate of austerity . And that doesn't count the $600 million that Congress provided in a separate border security bill in 2010. But the Obama administration believes that it's also paid dividends: In 2011, apprehensions at the border were at 340,252—the lowest level since 1971—while the Obama administration has deported immigrants at a faster rate than Bush.

Pro-immigration advocates believe that all this is proof that we've already done enough on the border security front. "The border security issue is, at this point, 90 to 95 percent solved," says Frank Sharry, head of America's Voice.

Republicans, however, contest the claim that border security has improved under Obama. They point out, for instance, that the drop in apprehensions simply reflects the fact that illegal immigration itself has fallen sharply since the U.S. economy has gone into free fall. Gordon Hanson, an economist at University of California, San Diego, disputes DHS's definition of "effective control" of the border.

"I don't think it has much scientific merit... It's a measure of investment. It's not a measure of return on investment," Hanson told Politifact. He acknowledges, however, that increased enforcement has indeed contributed to at least half the drop in illegal immigration over the last five years.