100 percent effective?

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Congress Inhabits Border Security Fantasy Land

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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It was inevitable that border security would be commandeered by immigration restrictionists in Congress. But the change of direction on border security has been even more abrupt than the transition from the Senate bill providing a legal path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the last Congress to the deport-'em-all posture Republicans have embraced in the past month.

In 2013, House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul steered a bipartisan border-security bill through his committee. It was a pretty good bill. Instead of throwing money in the general direction of Texas, it set a goal of "operational control" of the border, which it defined as "a 90 percent probability that illegal border crossers are apprehended and narcotics and other contraband are seized in high traffic areas." The caveats -- "90 percent probability" and "high traffic" -- made the goal credible. The bill required the Department of Homeland Security to devise a strategy to achieve it.

The proposal departed sharply from a previous, dead-end House bill, the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which defined "operational control" 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." The act effectively demanded a sealed border. In a nation with 7,000 miles of land border, 95,000 miles of shoreline and thousands of airports, a sealed border would require a police state more ambitious (and more effective) than North Korea, which, despite considerable effort, has not accomplished the task.

A written explanation from a McCaul aide, justifying McCaul's 2013 bill, appeared last July on National Review Online. It made the case for border realism:

The 100 percent standard in the Secure Fence Act is not realistic. This is like a mayor asking his police chief to prevent 100 percent of crime in his town.

McCaul said much the same when he criticized an amendment to the 2013 bill that would have required a 100-percent-secure border. "Putting a 100 percent number in there makes it not only unachievable but unrealistic," McCaul said, "and I believe, less credible."

McCaul's aide also defended the bipartisan proposal for setting broad goals instead of micromanaging the deployment of resources. (Given the ever-shifting tactics of traffickers, micromanaging the border is especially tricky.)  

Furthermore, instead of being overly prescriptive by authorizing a specific mileage of fencing, H.R. 1417 asks the Border Patrol to look at fence, agents and technology as part of a menu of options to secure the border to the 90 percent minimum requirement.

McCaul's bill never made it to the House floor for a vote. He now has a new, very partisan, proposal for border security -- the "Secure Our Borders First Act of 2015" -- that effectively repudiates his own previous repudiation of the Secure Fence Act.

Overly prescriptive?

The bill calls for "eight boat ramps in the Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector" along with "twenty-five miles of landing mat fencing with bollard style fencing in the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector" (to list just two provisions).


It limits the pay of Department of Homeland Security political appointees unless DHS prevents "all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband." 

McCaul has endorsed the same fanciful standard -- preventing "all unlawful entries" -- that he ridiculed less than a year ago. Having capitulated entirely to the border fantasists, McCaul's new bill was promptly attacked by other Republicans who claimed it doesn't go far enough.    

This week the Senate voted on a proposal to unravel President Barack Obama's executive actions seeking to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation -- a bill that originated in the House. Only one Republican -- Senator Dean Heller of Nevada (Hispanic population 27.5 percent) voted to defeat it. The Republican nativist wing entered 2013 as unwelcome guests at the immigration party. They start 2015 firmly in control of the Republican agenda. 

Immigration promises to be live ammunition in the 2016 contest for the Republican presidential nomination, with the party now almost uniformly on record in favor of driving undocumented immigrants out of the country. Jeb Bush is going to need a helmet and flak jacket.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net