Last Thursday the Senate passed a landmark bipartisan bill to overhaul nation’s immigration system by allocating roughly $40 billion to secure the border and provide pathways to citizenship for 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. without authorization.
At the root of the bill is a compromise between Democrats and Republicans who want border security as, in the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, “a condition for legalization.”
Despite his praise for the Senate’s milestone, President Barack Obama also emphasized the nature of bipartisanship. “By definition, nobody got everything they wanted. Not Democrats. Not Republicans. Not me,” Obama said in a statement. “But the Senate bill is consistent with the key principles for commonsense reform that I – and many others – have repeatedly laid out.”
While many say this is a huge victory for immigration reform, others warn the bill still has a long way to go as it makes its way through the House of Representatives.
Another lingering question is what a secure border looks like. Would doubling the size of Border Patrol be effective? In our continuing coverage of activity along the U.S.-Mexico border, CIR reporters Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz and news applications developer Michael Corey answered your questions on reddit during our first Ask Me Anything. Below find some of the highlights and links to some great resources that came up during Thursday’s chat. Read the full discussion here.
Editor’s note: Some questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
Q: If we ended the war on drugs, do you think you would see any major difference in the flow of drugs across the border? via Santa_McJingleberry
Michael Corey: I think there’s some tantalizing hints of this, but right now we haven’t really found a way to tease it out. For example, why isn’t there (relatively) that much pot being seized in southern California? There’s certainly more population in California than Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, so theoretically more demand.
Part of it could be that there’s a lot of border fencing and border personnel saturating the area, but part of it also could be: why import lesser-quality Mexican marijuana into a state with lots of super-high-quality weed? But so far we haven’t found a good way to try to measure that kind of thing.
G.W. Schulz: If the nation were to decriminalize drugs, surely there would be a major impact on the underground economy of drug trafficking. Some economists say that demand wouldn’t necessarily go up. But if above-ground suppliers were formally folded into the economy, I can’t see how traditional traffickers wouldn’t be effected.
Q: What is the most ingenious way you have seen/heard of someone trying pass over the border illegally? via endoflevelbaddy
Andrew Becker: Smugglers are always trying different ways to get drugs across: catapults, among toxic waste, in dolls. The most ingenious way I’ve heard of someone being smuggled across the border is a classic: a person sewn into a car seat.
Q: Did you not know of corrupt border agents on the take? Also, do you believe we are secure enough to pass immigration without problems fixed first? via molto-mato
Becker: The issue of corruption is something that the government has been wrestling with for awhile. Over the last decade it’s received more attention as Customs and Border Protection went on a historic hiring surge, which will pale in comparison to what the Senate has proposed in its latest bill. It’s a problem that needs to get sorted out as there is an alphabet soup of investigating agencies that sometimes cross wires. As far as securing the border ahead of the immigration overhaul, that’s a chicken-and-egg question. If we fixed immigration, would we have as much of a problem with illegal immigration?
Editor’s note: Check out our interactive database on CBP agents and officers who are becoming targets of corruption investigations.
Q: Do you think increasing border patrol will discourage illegal immigration over the border? I know people who hear this and really don’t seem phased at all. via Im-in-line
Schulz: There’s a HUGE debate in this area right now. The Border Patrol has an array of programs in place like Operation Streamline that are intended to deter people from crossing the border again. But some folks argue that “deterrence” in a criminal justice context only works with people motivated by greed, rage or perversion. Many border crossers are motivated by economic factors and family ties in the U.S. We obtained data earlier this year showing that in 2012 alone, more than 100,000 people apprehended by the Border Patrol had already been apprehended two or more times before. (And check out photojournalist Will Seberger’s amazing photos for the story.)
Becker: There are so many variables when it comes to illegal immigration. How effective is the Border Patrol? How good is the US economy? What’s the economy doing in the home countries of those seeking to enter the US? Researchers have found that as it currently stands, when it comes to Mexican migration, the decline in illegal immigration can be accounted for in thirds – one-third border enforcement, one-third a shaky US economy and one-third an improving Mexican economy. … Also, unauthorized border crossings only account for roughly half of the undocumented population in the US, according to some estimates. The other half are people who overstayed their visas. A take on No. 2 to come.
Corey: There’s certainly evidence that increasing people and infrastructure in one area can at least drive the traffic somewhere else. For example, as more fence was built in southern California, illegal crossings shifted more to Arizona – it was just getting too hard to make it worth going through southern California. But, at the same time, the overall number of people crossing the border didn’t decrease.
So the question is if you could apply that same local effect to the whole border without the cost being astronomical.
Currently, illegal crossings are certainly way down (it depends on who you ask, but that likely has a lot to do with the economy as much as increased security), but at the same time the number of people dying while attempting to cross is going up, because people are attempting to cross in more dangerous areas, like rural Arizona.
There are different types and levels of border fence throughout the border, and part of the calculus in what got built where was how difficult the terrain was. The rationale was that it made more sense to build more extensive fence first in easily accessible areas (like southern California) than in areas with natural barriers like desert and mountains (like Arizona) or the Rio Grande in Texas. So when people attempt to cross in areas with less fence or fewer border agents, they’re often going to encounter more dangerous conditions.
That’s where you see a lot of truly terrifying stories: people dying in the desert, often not being found, and when they’re found often not identifiable. In many cases all their relatives know is that their loved one left and disappeared.
Q: Have there been drone crashes on the border? via MargotW
Becker: Actually, there have been at least two. One crashed in Arizona early on in CBP’s drone program. That happened a few years ago. The cause was operator error. Another occurred in El Paso in 2010. That was reportedly a Mexican unmanned aircraft that crashed in 2010 in someone’s backyard. Those are the two that come to mind.
Q: Do you think spending $40 billion on securing the border is reasonable? via RRhys
Schulz: The cost issue has always intrigued me, as it does with any story. But what’s interesting about the border in particular is that Washington doesn’t always seem eager to factor cost into the public debate. We’re already spending gobs of money employing agents, investing in sophisticated surveillance technology and building fencing. Now we’re considering spending billions more as part of a compromise on immigration reform. But as numerous watchdog offices have said, the Department of Homeland Security isn’t very good at developing metrics that show how successful it’s been. Here’s one of many reports the GAO has done on this subject.
Becker: 40 billion is a lot of dough, compared to what was originally envisioned for the bill when it was introduced. Senators have justified it by pointing to a Congressional Budget Office analysis that found passage of the immigration law overhaul would create cost savings that approached $1 trillion. But there are so many others accompanying costs.
Basically, the Border Patrol would have to duplicate itself over 10 years. That’s a pretty big lift. At the same time, the agency has faced down furloughs. So Congress wants the Patrol to hire roughly 20,000 new agents to reach its goal of 38,000 agents along the southwest border. Currently, they don’t have the infrastructure and resources to handle that surge. A few months ago they were sending out notices that agents were getting furloughed and gas was being rationed. That’s some disconnect there. But the passage of this bill is seen as critical in terms of legacies and politics.
Q: Why is the U.S. is so adamant on building a wall to keep immigrants out, yet we were also a big opponent towards the Berlin Wall? via Diet_Coke_Gang
Corey: I’m personally pretty fascinated by the comparison of the U.S.-Mexico border fence to other walls/fences in history.
I think most Americans have never really considered that the border fence(s), which in current form is about 700 miles long, is already much, much more extensive than the Berlin Wall ever was. Value judgments as to whether the fence is a good or bad idea aside, I wonder if a lot of Americans give much more mental significance to the Berlin Wall than to the border fence.
Editor’s note: A Border Patrol agent happened to weigh in during our reddit AMA. Read his response here.
Q: How many people do you estimate slip past the border in a year? What do you think the border needs to be successful? via sasquatch606
Schulz: This is something Congress has been pushing the Border Patrol on for awhile. Lawmakers want better estimates, but they haven’t always been forthcoming. My reporting partner, however, wrote a story in April based on some internal documents showing that drones had detected 7,333 border crossers during a three-month period in Arizona. But only 410 apprehensions were reported during that time.
Becker: Different researchers have taken a stab at estimating the number of people who sneak across annually. It’s a pretty fluid number these days as unauthorized border crossings, as measured by Border Patrol apprehensions, have fallen to the lowest level in decades. Some previously estimated the Patrol caught one in three crossers. GAO reviewed this earlier this year and found effectiveness rates were generally higher than that.