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We need a more agile Border Patrol — not a bigger one

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There are nowhere near enough votes in Congress to back up the extreme list of conditions the White House is now proposing to allow DACA recipients to stay in the United States. However, there is already a large number of border security proposals currently moving through Congress, and Democrats will probably have to trade major border spending as part of a deal to prevent a tragic loss of the “Dreamers’” legal status. It’s clear that both parties will eventually have to grit their teeth and compromise to get anything passed.

If Congress wants to fund border security measures that would solve real-world problems, they should consider the following:

{mosads}One problem in desperate need of attention are the run-down and understaffed ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border. These official crossing points see millions of people, vehicles and cargo pass through every day. When drugs are smuggled into the United States, it’s most often through the ports of entry (these are the official border crossings, not the rural areas that currently lack fencing). If Congress is going to give Customs and Border Protection billions of dollars to increase border security, it should spend the money where it’s actually most needed, not on a wall which is costly, ineffective and divisive.


Congress should also be more strategic about how to best fund Border Patrol: simply put, the agency, which doubled in size between 2005 and 2011, doesn’t need an across-the-board increase in staff. The number of migrants apprehended while attempting to cross into the U.S. from Mexico has been dropping steadily over the past decade and a half. To put this in perspective, based on Border Patrol numbers for agents stationed at the border (for 2016 and 2017) and the number of apprehensions registered in 2016 and 2017, we calculate that on average a Border Patrol agent apprehends about one migrant per month.

Even if Congress were to approve funding for a Border Patrol hiring spree, the agency wouldn’t be able to screen its prospective employees faster than its own attrition rate. Besides an inability to keep five percent of its staff from quitting each year, Border Patrol hasn’t been able to transfer enough agents from quieter zones to sectors with more smuggling and illegal migration.

Both of these problems would be solved if Congress gave Border Patrol the funding to offer expanded benefits and career path incentives for helping to meet localized needs. To reiterate: we don’t need a larger Border Patrol because a shortage of agents isn’t the problem. What’s needed is a more agile Border Patrol, capable of incentivizing agents to relocate as needed and to stay on long-term.

There are also better ways to spend taxpayer money than by tripling the size of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportation force. As is the case with Border Patrol, expanding ICE makes for good optics but ultimately is unnecessary and ineffective, since undocumented migration has dropped to levels not seen since Richard Nixon’s first term.

We don’t need to spend millions to expand an ICE deportation force that would cruelly tear families apart, for the sake of meeting some arbitrary target number. We don’t need to spend millions to detain and deport migrants with no criminal records, for the sake of assuaging baseless fears and scoring political points on cable news. And we definitely do not need to spend billions on a wall that sends a toxic message to U.S. allies and would do virtually nothing to disrupt the business of drug cartels and human traffickers.

Instead, why not spend money on body cameras that Customs and Border Protection leadership already supports, or upgrading outdated technology and surveillance equipment (while remaining mindful of concerns over civil liberties)? Why not appropriate funds for the specialized employees needed to speed hiring by conducting background checks or running polygraph tests? Organized crime groups have a vested interest in planting collaborators within Customs and Border Protection, so the agency needs all the support it can get for accountability measures.

There are indeed border security policies that are cost-effective, reasonable, humane and deserving of support from both parties. Congress would do well to pursue these. It’s a way to both uphold core American values and protect taxpayers’ wallets.

Adam Isacson is the senior associate for Defense Oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas. Elyssa Pachico is a communications associate at WOLA.

Tags Border Patrol Borders of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration ICE Illegal immigration Mexico–United States border United States Border Patrol US-Mexico Border Wall

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