Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the Republican Party’s leading voice on immigration, says he and his colleagues will consider allowing some of the 11.1 million undocumented workers living in the U.S. to apply for green cards. But first, President Obama has to get serious about stopping the influx of new illegal immigrants. “The president’s bill fails to follow through on previously broken promises to secure our borders, creates a special pathway that puts those who broke our immigration laws at an advantage over those who chose to do things the right way and come here legally,” Rubio said in a Feb. 18 statement, after a draft of the White House’s immigration plan was leaked to the press.
The porous border has long been the Republicans’ main argument against reforming immigration laws. The last time Congress took up the issue, in 2007, it bogged down over the government’s inability to stop the flow of undocumented laborers. More than 850,000 people were caught trying to illegally cross the nearly 2,000-mile-long southern border from Mexico that year, and the number of Mexican immigrants living in the country illegally was at a 40-year peak, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Even with the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, President George W. Bush couldn’t persuade enough Republicans to support an immigration bill.
This time, those looking to revive concerns about a lawless border must contend with a far different set of facts: The line between Mexico and the U.S. is now more secure than it’s been in decades. Obama has poured money and resources into border security. In his first term, he spent $73 billion on immigration enforcement. That’s more than the budgets of all other federal law enforcement agencies—the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals Service—combined, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group. (Bush spent $37.4 billion on immigration enforcement in his first term and $60 billion in his second.)
In 2012 nearly 357,000 people were apprehended trying to sneak in from Mexico. Why fewer than in 2007? Because not as many people are attempting the crossing. “Apprehensions are way down in the face of many more resources,” says Judith Gans of the Immigration Policy Program at the University of Arizona. Last year Pew reported that for the first time in 40 years, about the same number of Mexican migrants (legal and illegal) returned home as arrived, bringing net migration to zero. An immigrant living in the U.S. today is more likely to have flown in through JFK International Airport with a tourist visa than crawled in through a tunnel with fake papers.
In negotiating the failed 2007 deal, Republican lawmakers demanded that President Bush deploy four drones to scan the border, build 105 radar and camera towers, raise the number of Border Patrol agents to 20,000, and erect 670 miles of fencing. Today, the U.S. has 10 border drones, 300 towers, and 21,394 agents—18,500 of them stationed on the U.S.-Mexico border. Fencing now covers 651 miles of the border, twice the length in 2009, and immigration agents have deported some 1.5 million undocumented workers in the past four years, the most since Dwight Eisenhower was president.
As they prepare for the coming immigration debate, administration officials are making the most of these figures. Standing on the stretch of the southwest border between Tijuana and San Diego on Feb. 4, flanked by reporters and photographers, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared, “I believe the border is secure.”
Yet it’s difficult to measure how much of the drop in illegal immigration is owed to this massive law enforcement effort. Some of the decline is the result of a soft U.S. economy that has fewer jobs to offer immigrants. Punitive laws in Arizona, South Carolina, Alabama, and other states and a growing Mexican economy have also kept more of its citizens at home. “Enforcement is not the sole factor contributing to the reduced illegal flows we’ve seen in the last five years,” says Gordon Hanson, an economist and immigration expert at the University of California at San Diego. The tough border patrols and tough economy, he estimates, “are roughly similar in magnitude.”
Drug violence in Mexico has also helped to discourage border crossings. As the U.S. has tightened checkpoints and erected triple fences in Southern California, migrants have headed to the Arizona desert, where the terrain is more dangerous and the region south of the border is controlled by cartels that have made a lucrative side business of robbing illegal entrants. Between protection money to drug runners and fees to human smugglers—many of whom also work for the cartels—it now costs between $3,000 and $5,000 to sneak into the U.S., compared with $1,500 a decade ago, according to the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University. “We’ve made crossing the border a more valuable service than it used to be,” says Hanson, who believes many of the resources put into border protection would be better spent going after U.S. employers who hire undocumented workers. “That’s going to do the enforcement work for you,” he says.
Rubio acknowledges the border is more secure than it was a few years ago, but says it’s not enough. “We need to achieve control of our borders,” he wrote in a Jan. 30 op-ed on the conservative website RedState. “This is not just an immigration issue; this is a national security and sovereignty issue.” Yet Rubio’s office won’t specify what he’d do differently. “There are people for whom, when they say border, they mean sealed,” says David Aguilar, deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “That is an impossibility.”
For now, Rubio’s argument is helped by the public’s belief that the border is still out of control. In a June 2012 Pew poll, 70 percent of Americans said Obama needed to tighten security as a condition of immigration reform. “The country thinks the government isn’t up to enforcing the nation’s immigration laws,” says Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University School of Law. In fact, “there’s no doubt it has the ability and the willingness to do it.”