Are Border Enforcement Triggers Necessary?

By Wayne A. Cornelius, wcorneli@ucsd.edu

Damien Cave’s recent report on border security illustrates the futility of further investments in the kind of border enforcement that some members of Congress find necessary as a trigger for comprehensive immigration reform.

The key statistic for measuring the efficacy of border enforcement is the “eventual success rate.” That is, on a given trip to the border, what percentage of unauthorized migrants, even if apprehended initially, can get through if they just keep trying?

Each year since 2005 my research team at the University of California, San Diego has interviewed hundreds of undetected migrants and potential migrants in their homes on both sides of the border. Among our most recent (January-February 2013) interviewees, 86 percent of those apprehended on the first try were able to enter undetected on the second or third try — down from our previous studies, but still impressive testimony to the near-impossibility of stopping migrants determined to feed their families or reunite with U.S. relatives.

With detected illegal entries down to 1971 levels – due mostly to weak labor demand in the U.S. – no appreciable amount of additional deterrence can be wrung from more spending on border agents, hardware, and technology.

We should declare victory at the border and move on to the hard work of ensuring that future flows of migrants will be predominantly legal and creating a meaningful path to legalization for those already here.

Wayne A. Cornelius is director of the Mexican Migration Field Research Program at the University of California, San Diego, and co-author of “Budgeting for Immigration Enforcement” (National Academies of Science, 2011).