We need to take a brainier approach to border security

Ali Noorani Executive Director, National Immigration Forum
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Our nation could use an immigration strategy that actually secures our border, uses our brains and shows the world we have hearts.

As a result of spending nearly $60 billion over five years on border security, there are over 42,000 Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers along the Southwest border — all-time highs. CBP daily deploys 1,419 canine enforcement teams, 21,863 automobiles, 225 marine vessels, 280 equestrian patrols and 290 surveillance aircraft. In addition, there are more than 1,200 National Guard troops stationed along the Southwest border and more than 5,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers deployed there. The border is lined by 649 miles of fencing.

This massive deployment of resources comes at a time when illegal entries have plummeted to record low levels. Between 2000 and 2010, apprehensions of illegal entrants decreased by more than two-thirds — a level not seen since the Nixon administration. DHS officials predict even lower apprehension rates will be reported for Fiscal Year 2011.

Meanwhile, in July, USA Today found that, at increments of 30, 50 and 100 miles from the border, the rate of crime was lower than the national rate. In fact, according to the FBI, Boston, St. Paul and Austin all saw more murders in 2009 than Nogales, Chula Vista and El Paso.

We’ve spent a lot of border money, but we aren’t using our brains.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 98 percent of the drugs that enter the U.S. do so overland, using commercial trucks and private and rented vehicles equipped with hidden compartments. Eighty-eight percent of their products enter through 20 ports of entry. The land ports of entry on the Southwest border are the doorways through which nearly all of the cartels’ illegal drugs enter the U.S.

Moreover, a 2006 study for the San Diego Association of Governments estimated that wait times at the border due to insufficient lanes, inspectors and technology at ports of entry results in about $2 billion in lost economic output in the San Diego region alone, every year. Each additional 15 minutes of wait time at ports of entry represents an additional $1 billion loss in productivity and a loss of 134,000 jobs in the bi-national border region.

Making our border security brainier means equipping our ports of entry to stop smuggling and facilitate trade.

Then we get to our hearts.

Through August of 2009, CBP reported 416 deaths of border-crossers — nearly three times the number of murders reported within 30 miles of the entire Southwest border. According to humanitarian groups, these numbers undercount the number of deaths.

The United States is spending billions of dollars so border communities are safer than ever, only to see hundreds of people die in the desert every year.

In the Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck wrote, “How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him — he has known a fear beyond every other.”

Fences, agents and drones are not stopping migrants from dying in the desert as they seek a better life. They aren’t even stopping drugs, cash, guns and human trafficking victims from being smuggled into the country.

Only fixing our immigration system so immigrants have accessible routes to enter the country legally will end the deaths and allow DHS to prioritize national security resources on stopping contraband.

Perhaps along with a brain and a heart, a little courage is necessary for Congress and candidates to rally around a realistic immigration strategy.

Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.