America’s border-centric approach to immigration reform

by Michael Tamayo

With Congress expected to unveil its plan for immigration reform soon, the country can look forward to another high-profile debate between Democrats and Republicans about another divisive issue. But there is one piece of the legislation that is attracting relatively little attention: border control. Of course, border control measures are to be anticipated in any immigration reform bill, but what the Senate’s Gang of Eight is considering is out of the ordinary.

The Gang of Eight is considering inserting a requirement for a border control benchmark to be met before allowing other provisions of the bill to take effect. These other provisions include those allowing the naturalization of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States. In other words, meeting the border control benchmark would “trigger” other parts of the bill to take effect.

But why should border control be such a primary concern for any immigration reform effort? Why should it be prioritized over other parts of the bill? Border control is an important component of immigration reform, but it is by no means a sufficient deterrent of would-be illegal immigrants and it should not be treated as a prerequisite for other parts of the bill.Having a secure border through which immigrants cannot pass is something that sounds good. Secure borders, more control over American jobs, and the ability to block immigrants from entering American soil – these are difficult to argue with. The flipside is frightening: insecure borders, less control over American jobs, and an inability to block immigrants from entering American soil. It’s an instinctive solution to a seemingly simple problem.

Because a secure border works well in theory, the stiffening of border control efforts has proven to be popular and politically costless. This makes it a relatively easy thing to pass, given the gridlock and political infighting that is characteristic of American politics. It allows both parties to appear tough on immigration. It carries a strong symbolic appeal matched by few other policy initiatives in the United States. And the federal government does not hesitate to show its resolve to stop would-be illegal immigrants at the border. It keeps throwing more money at the border for fear that the border isn’t secure enough. We are spending twice as much money on border control efforts now than we were a decade ago. We have more than doubled the number of border patrol agents in about the same time span. Today, our borders are highly militarized and no less than draconian. The logic is simple: in an ideal world, there would be no illegal immigrants in the United States if they could not enter.

But it’s not an ideal world and it’s not a simple problem.

The fact of the matter is that increasingly strengthened border control doesn’t stop the influx of people trying to cross the border illegally. The United States once tried catching immigrants by focusing patrolling efforts in California and Texas, which were at the time the most common points of entry for the immigrants. The immigrants simply switched to Arizona and New Mexico instead. To take another example (albeit not about immigration), the United States once tried catching shipments of illegal drugs entering the country by focusing on the airplanes which brought them in. Drug smugglers simply switched to ground transportation instead. As long as the incentives to move to the United States remain strong, and as long as legal paths to American citizenship are difficult to attain, tightened border security will do little to deter people’s will to enter the United States. Strengthened border control does not remove the incentive for would-be illegal immigrants to enter the United States. All it manages to do is put an obstacle between the immigrant and the incentive. It is important for us not to underestimate the resolve of people who are desperate enough to try to enter the United States illegally.

In considering whether the Senate should insert a border control “trigger” in its immigration reform bill, then, we must call into question the efficacy of a border-centric approach to immigration reform. We need to be considering other solutions on equal footing with border control.

But rather than reevaluate the policies we have in place, the Senate’s border control trigger treats the border-centric approach as the most important component of immigration reform. Why? We’re focusing so much on deterring would-be illegal immigrants from entering that we’re not even addressing the reasons why they want to move to the United States in the first place, reasons which are worth considering for the sake of having a more holistic perspective when crafting immigration reform bills.

This is not meant to trivialize the work of border control agents. Border control is important. If border control is to be expected in any immigration reform package, then insert them into the bill. But don’t insert a border control trigger. There comes a point where prioritizing our efforts at the border becomes bullheaded and misguided. It’s wrong to allow the government to prioritize a policy that attacks the symptoms without trying to root out the causes. We’ve never dedicated much money to anything other than stringent patrolling at the border, but we might as well experiment with new ideas instead of doubling down on a policy that doesn’t work the way it needs to. We need to cast this issue in a new light and paint it with different colors.


photo by Wonderlane: