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With the Resurrection of Immigration Reform We'll Hear a Lot About Securing Our Borders, But What Does It Really Mean?

It’s rare to hear a politician speak favorably of immigration reform without the requisite nod to border security.

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Voters reelected Obama, as expected. But it was not simply a reelection; there was also an unexpected revival, a seemingly miraculous resurrection of the prospects for immigration reform. The election also seemed to mark a turn toward drug control reform and the legalization of marijuana.

As Republicans and Democrats recognize the political logic of finally fixing the country’s restrictive and harsh immigration policies, there is bipartisan support for immigration reform. Rather than being a untouchable “third rail” of politics, immigration reform has emerged, as if overnight, as a political imperative for both parties.

Largely because of dramatically increasing political participation of Latinos, Asians and other immigrant-based communities, support for some type of immigration reform -- whether a comprehensive overhaul or piecemeal revisions -- spans nearly the entire political spectrum in post-election America. Advocacy for immigration reform is breaking into various camps, from those only supporting an expansion of guest-worker programs to those who insist on comprehensive immigration reform. Virtually all sectors regard border security as a precondition for immigration reform. Border security is the common ground for all camps favoring immigration reform, even among immigrant-rights advocacy groups.

When speaking about the new prospects for immigration reform after his reelection, President Obama made the now-required nod to border security. It’s rare to hear any politician or reform advocate speak favorably of immigration reform without the apparently requisite nod to border security. As President Obama said, "I think it should include a continuation of the strong border security measures that we've taken because we have to secure our borders.”

What does 'Secure Our Borders' Mean?

Yet for all the enthusiastic support for increased border security – whether as nationalist response, a tactic to achieve immigration reform, or because of anti-immigration or pro-drug control convictions – there is no common understanding of what border security actually means. It would be fascinating to hear President Obama explain what border security means and what the $100 billion we have spent in border security programing has accomplished in the last 10 years.

The Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Border Patrol aren’t much help in defining or assessing border security. About the closest DHS comes to defining border security is declaring its commitment to “secure the border” against the entry of “dangerous people and goods.” This more militaristic and threat-laden phrasing that pushed aside the pre-9/11 language of “border control” and about blocking flows of illegal aliens and illegal drugs.

The ambiguity and expansiveness of the new border security mission is paralleled by the Border Patrol’s apparent inability to evaluate the threats and risks to border security and to assess the degree to which the border is secure. The Border Patrol has squandered much of the goodwill, trust and credibility that resounded to its border control mission after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The billions of dollars wasted in flawed high-tech projects, and the agency’s unwillingness to subject its many new border-security initiatives to cost-benefit evaluations and risk-based assessments, have given rise to new skepticism about border policy.

The Border Patrol rightly links its security mission to an assessment of risks and threats and to a new risk-management commitment. Yet, as has been the practice of the Border Patrol both before and after 9/11, there is no evidence that the agency has instituted rigorous risk-based strategies for its operations and resource distributions.

The Border Patrol implicitly equates numbers and threats. In the post-9/11 lexicon, all illegal entries are defined as threats. Rather than undertaking traditional threat assessments, the Border Patrol has dumbed down its definitions of threats and risks. Its risk-based, intelligence-driven strategy, therefore, identifies the areas of highest risk as the areas of the border with the highest number of illegal entries.

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