How secure is the border? DHS stats only measure part of the problem

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified to Congress last month that the border “has never been stronger.” What she doesn’t say is that the department no longer measures illegal immigrants who get away -- only those it catches.

“For two years, Secretary Napolitano has claimed our southern border is secure without having any metrics in place to make that determination,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told Fox News on Monday. “Such statements demonstrate her lack of leadership and unwillingness to solve the problem."

In response, the Department of Homeland Security argues staffing levels are at an all-time high, while Border Patrol apprehensions remain at historic lows, a downward trend it claims “reflect fewer individuals crossing the border.” Apprehensions are down 79 percent since 2000, and 50 percent since 2008.

But those numbers alone mean little and one congressional aide called them a sticking point in immigration reform negotiations. “It’s like the juggler who tells you he can juggle three balls, but fails to tell you he dropped five. Apprehensions alone are meaningless. It could mean fewer people are crossing or you’re just missing a larger share of those who do cross. We don’t know.”

Exactly what defines a "secure border" is critical as Republicans and Democrats inch closer to an immigration overhaul. Some lawmakers insist on border security first, as a pre-condition for any form of amnesty or legalization. The problem is, the Department of Homeland Security has no reliable or accepted metric to measure border security. That presents a problem for lawmakers who do not accept the administration’s claim the border is safe and secure.

“There are areas of the border that have never been worse and never been more dangerous,” said Arizona rancher Dan Bell. “Every time someone mentions immigration reform we see a spike. We see more people coming through. And that is the case now.”

Bell operates a 50-square-mile ranch along the U.S.- Mexico border. He says illegal immigrant traffic on his ranch is worse, not better, than before the arrival of thousands of border agents in nearby Nogales.

“The canyons, the valleys, the mountains of Santa Cruz County, that is where the activity is now,” admits Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada. “The activity has shifted from urban to rural areas.”

In Nogales, Estrada says the city itself has never been safer. The busy port of entry is heavily fortified, with a massive steel curtain stretching 5 miles east and west of town. Stadium lighting and cameras blanket the border, while Border Patrol agents and vehicles saturate the streets.

“In my 45 years in law enforcement I have never seen it more secure than it is now,” Estrada said.

But outside of the city, ranchers and agents tell a different story. Smugglers are mobile. Their routes are fluid and change every hour, relative to border patrol units, cameras and towers.

Unfortunately, Border Patrol no longer keeps data that reflects this dynamic. Prior to 2012, the agency kept three important statistics: illegal immigrants it caught, those it turned away and those who got away. A formula using those three numbers determined efficiency. In 2011, the last year the agency collected those numbers, the Border Patrol apprehended 124,000 illegal immigrants, turned back 43,000, and missed 25,000.

In the six prior years, no fewer than 800,000 illegal immigrants "got away," according to a 2012 GAO analysis of CBP data, though the Border Patrol did reduce the number of ‘"got aways" from 33 percent to 13 percent from 2006 to 2011.

But the agency dropped this metric and now only reports apprehensions, which the GAO said was inadequate. “The number of apprehensions bears little relationship to effectiveness because agency officials do not compare these numbers with the amount of cross border illegal activity.”

Last year the agency adopted a new measure of accountability known as “operational control." However, statistics showed the border to be "out of control" in four of the nation’s nine border sectors, and the agency abandoned that metric as well.

Today, the Border Patrol is developing a more "holistic” approach to the border and will introduce a new “Border Condition Index,” which it says will “provide a top level summary of systematic border trends."

"An initial version of the BCI has been completed and final consolidations and modifications are currently being made,” DHS said in response to questions on Monday.