Yellow caution signs with the silhouette of a family on the run dotted the freeways of San Diego in the early 1990s. Not your typical road sign, but one that California’s Department of Transportation posted as a result of hundreds of undocumented immigrants being hit when traversing the freeways near the border.
As evidenced by the immigrant crossing road signs, the number of immigrant crossings through the San Diego corridor ballooned in the mid 1990s. In reaction to this spike the Clinton Administration launched Operation Gatekeeper, channeling increased funding and manpower to California’s border stretch. But before Operation Gatekeeper there was Operation Hold the Line in El Paso that addressed the heavy immigrant crossing flow of that corridor. And following Gatekeeper and Hold the Line, Operation Safeguard was implemented in the Tucson sector in an effort to mimic the successes of its predecessors.
Every couple of years there is a new border operation. And each of these operations ends up successfully stemming the flow of undocumented immigration in their respective sector. However, these successes come with unintended consequences. As the crossings subside in one sector they shoot up in others.
In 1993 Operation Hold the Line saw a decrease in apprehensions from a quarter of a million down to just seventy thousand, but border apprehensions increased along the rest of the border. Then when the California stretch of the border was also clamped down in 1994 by Operation Gatekeeper border apprehensions along the Arizona border skyrocketed.
Today we see yet another shift in the flow of immigrant crossings. The highest rates of apprehension have ended up back in Texas. Arizona’s Operation Safeguard was finally able to decrease the number of its sector’s border crossings, but with the result of pushing the flow elsewhere—back to the Lone Star state.
Much like the game of whac a mole, border enforcement pushes down the flow of crossings in one sector but then sees it pop up in another.
Targeted border enforcement operations have been successful. But in terms of the bigger picture – decreasing the total number of illegal border crossings – the operations haven’t really made a dent.
As more and more resources were poured into border enforcement over the last two decades illegal border crossings continued to rise. It wasn’t until the Great Recession that illegal crossings started to drop. In other words, it wasn’t a beefed up border that caused a drop in immigration, it was the decreased demand for immigrant labor in a bad economy.
Immigrants will come to the United States because they are wanted and they will find a way to do it even if border security is tight. As long as there is a demand there will be a supply, it’s Econ 101.
The immigration reform proposed by the Senate’s Gang of Eight pours additional resources into the border and seeks to aggressively beef up the entirety of the border. But for some members, the Gang of Eight doesn’t go far enough. For example, Senators Corker and Hoeven have proposed doubling the Border Patrol’s force. Their call for an increase of over 20,000 officers, together with hundreds of miles worth of fencing seems to be gaining momentum and will likely make it to the final vote of the Senate version.
However, it is doubtful that the 40,000 Border Patrol officers will be distributed equally along all border sectors. Sectors with higher crossing rates will get more resources. So the cycle starts all over again—Sector X crossings surge and in comes an “operation”, after a couple of years the crossings decrease but move to a different corridor, perhaps even to the Canadian border!
The problem with a border enforcement heavy approach is that it only addresses the symptom – not the cause – of undocumented immigration. To truly stem the flow of immigration the persons who illegally employ immigrants need to be stopped. In other words there needs to be an internal enforcement approach to compliment border enforcement.
Like most things in life results come more from quality than quantity. Instead of spending money to put 20,000 Border Patrol on the ground how about taking one tenth of that number and putting it on the case of the employers who draw immigrants here. The talk of border security is tough and macho, but real border security must take place beyond the border.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino and MSNBC contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.