Despite Washington spending billions of taxpayer dollars on efforts to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, two internal government reports reveal there is no clear way of gauging whether any of it is actually working.
Backing up reporting from Fox News earlier this year, the reports from the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service show the Department of Homeland Security lacks an accurate barometer to measure the success of ramped-up efforts to curtail illegal crossings.
The DHS and the Obama administration typically tout the number of apprehensions of people coming in illegally as their gauge for success. But those numbers, analysts warn, are open to interpretation and don’t necessarily show whether an increase or decrease is due to immigration trends, economic shifts, enforcement policies or all of the above.
"Apprehensions data are imperfect indicators of illegal flows because they exclude two important groups when it comes to unauthorized migration: aliens who successfully enter and remain in the United States ... and aliens who are deterred from entering the United States," Marc Rosenblum, immigration policy specialist at CRS, wrote in his May report. "Thus, analysts do not know if a decline in apprehensions is an indicator of successful enforcement, because fewer people are attempting to enter, or of enforcement failures, because more of them are succeeding."
The report said recent drops in illegal immigration can likely be attributed to a combination of enforcement and the economic downturn in the U.S., "though the precise share of the decline attributable to enforcement is unknown.”
DHS says staffing levels are at all-time highs while apprehensions remain at historic lows – down 79 percent since 2000 and 50 percent since 2008 -- a trend it claims reflects fewer people crossing the border. But many argue that those numbers alone mean little and don’t reflect an accurate reading on whether new policies are working.
In February 2013, the GAO claimed the number of apprehensions provides information on activity levels “but does not inform program results or resource allocation decisions.”
Since then, Border Patrol has been in the process of developing performance goals and measures of assessing the progress of its efforts to secure the border between the ports of entry but “it has not identified milestones and time frames for developing and implementing them.”
The June 27 GAO border security audit also points to a lack of interagency coordination and information sharing. While the GAO says communication has improved, it notes that “challenges remain.”
The GAO had previously recommended that federal agencies develop a unified system for coordinating information and integrating border security operations. In January 2011, U.S. Customs and Border Protection sent out a memo saying interagency partnerships were important to address border security threats on federal lands.
“While this is a positive step, to fully satisfy the intent of GAO’s recommendation, DHA needs to take further action to monitor and uphold implementation of the existing interagency agreements,” the latest audit says.
Both groups also say inconsistency in data collection and the inability to count the number of people who have illegally crossed are just the latest in a series of problems that have plagued an already-weak system. Critics like Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, say throwing money at the problem won’t help.
In the past decade, DHS has doubled the number of personnel assigned to patrol U.S. land borders and inspect travelers at its various air, land and sea ports of entry. In 2004, the government spent $5.9 billion to “secure” the borders. At the time there were 28,100 personnel assigned to the task. By the end of 2011, that number had grown to 41,400 with a total security cost of $11.8 billion.
An immigration bill passed by the Senate this past June would boost spending to $46 billion.
A representative with the DHS has not yet responded to requests for comment.