On the border, DHS has earned Congress' trust

Let’s review some data from the last decade or so.  Crime on the US side of the border has plummeted, dropping from just over 19,000 incidents of violent crime in 2004 to just over 14,000 in 2011.  The flow of unauthorized immigrants is now a fifth of what it was at its height, declining from over 700,000 in 2000 to less than 200,000 last year.  With the normal churn of immigrants returning home, the net migration of unauthorized immigrants is zero today.  In the five high traffic corridors which experience most of the flow of unauthorized migrants, two already have achieved a 90% apprehension rate, and two are over 80%.

Importantly, this enforcement success has not come at the expense of trade with Mexico, which is rising at extraordinary rates.  In 2009, US trade with Mexico was $300 billion; in 2012 it was $536 billion, and we are on track this year to see it hit close to $600b – a doubling in just four years.  Six million US jobs are dependent on this exploding trade, and Mexico has become the US’s second largest destination for our exports, buying almost double what China purchases from our businesses every year.

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The Senate immigration bill establishes ambitious enforcement targets to build on DHS’s recent success.   The bill calls for a 90 percent apprehension rate across the entire border;  it requires a new exit visa system at air and sea ports of entry; and it nationalizes our worker verification system, giving businesses better tools to ensure their workers are legal.   Achieving any one of these three objectives in the next decade would be ambitious; doing all three together is going to require significant bipartisan cooperation, adequate funding levels and strong leadership from DHS in the years to come.   None of the current Republican border amendments, including the one being offered by Senator John Cornyn, do much to alter this strategy.  They move the enforcement timetable up a bit, which would be expensive and given the already ambitious targets, make the overall strategy much more likely to fail.  Many of the other recommended additions are unnecessary and often terribly expensive flourishes which may sound strong and tough but do little to alter the strategic trajectory the Senate has already agreed to.  In almost every case these new GOP provisions make the Senate bill more expensive and worse, not tougher and better.  

What the Cornyn Amendment gets right, however, is the need for additional investments in our ports of entry.  The explosion of our trade relationship with Mexico in recent years has made the need to modernize and update our 47 ports of entry along the border a national economic priority.  The current Senate bill makes a nod in this direction, adding 3,500 customs agents to facilitate the movement of more goods and people, and establishes a grant program to upgrade our ports.  But Cornyn goes further, committing $1b a year for six years to improve infrastructure and add personnel at our land ports of entry, and calls for changing the law to allow DHS to enter public-private partnerships along the border to help mobilize private capital to improve these ports.  While we think much of the enforcement side of the Cornyn Amendment is unnecessary and unrealistic, the ports of entry investment provisions should be adopted on the Senate floor and woven into the final Senate bill.  They will help create good jobs here in the US while improving security at the border.  

To be adopted, Republican proposals to alter the current Senate immigration bill’s ambitious border enforcement provisions should have to demonstrate two things: 1) they make the current Senate Bill better 2) they acknowledge the significant success the Administration has had in managing the border.   You can’t really have it both ways on this last one – the reason the Senate bill has set such ambitious targets for enforcement in the coming years is because DHS has shown it can manage the border effectively.  If you think DHS has failed, and is not to be trusted, as some have suggested, then why in the world would you make the border provisions even more ambitious and harder to achieve?   

The answer, of course, is that these Amendments are not designed to make the bill better, or the border safer, but to derail the process altogether.  You can’t have a “tougher” bill without also trusting DHS to carry it through.  

Rosenberg is president of NDN/NPI, a centrist Democratic think tank in Washington, D.C.

Updated at 3:28 p.m.