Immigration Reform 2013: How Secure Is the U.S. Border With Mexico, and How Secure Should It Be?

The date was August 10, 2003.

The setting was Veracruz, Mexico.

Two brothers, Carlos and Alvaro* Ferrera, ages 21 and 23 respectively, say their goodbyes to their nine younger siblings as they wait for their cousin to arrive with a vehicle, one that has been borrowed for this special occasion.

This may look like a family vacation, but it only seems that way.

As the sun sets and the hot August heat turns to a cooler night, Carlos and Alvaro jump into the rented truck with nothing but the clothes on their backs and $300 in cash. They won't have the time or energy to bring luggage.

Thirteen hours later, they approach the outskirts of Reynosa, a border city in the northern part of Tamaulipas, Mexico. The sun is rising as they say their goodbyes and hurriedly find a place indoors to wait out the hot summer day by resting and drinking water. The next 24 hours will be brutal, and for all they know, possibly their last.

Their plan is to cross the border into Mission, Texas, following the border fence from a distance once the sun goes down to avoid being spotted by patrol. They know there are glitches in the fence, or so they hear from their uncle, who made it safely across six months prior and is awaiting their arrival. Once across, they will place all of their trust, faith, and money that has been sent to them by their uncle over the past year, into the hands of a complete stranger in the hopes that they will then be able to live out their American dreams. The plan seems simple. Carrying it out will be unimaginable.

For 48 straight hours, Carlos and Alvaro will venture through miles of dense brush and terrain in the hot Rio Grande Valley sun, with limited water, quenching their thirst by drinking from mud puddles. They will be shot at by ranchers as they cross private land, and travel on foot with no access to food or medical supplies. Unlike an estimated 6,000 illegal immigrants who have gone before them, they will survive the trek, but be left to survive a different kind of journey: one as an illegal immigrant in a country that they feel doesn’t want them.

Ten years later, Alvaro finds himself as a waiter at a family-owned Mexican restaurant in rural Kentucky. He and his wife, Autumn Ferrera, a Michigan native and U.S. citizen, have two young children ages five and two, both born on U.S. soil. Since they were married at an international center in 2007, it has been an ongoing struggle to keep Alvaro safe from deportation.

“They wanted to send our family to Juarez, Mexico to be with Alvaro if his waiver was denied and he was sent back,” she said. “Juarez is overrun by drug cartels and violence, and it is no place to have small children. People don’t understand what it would be like for children to have their mother or father taken away to a different country to never been seen or heard from again.”

Stories like Alvaro’s are becoming more common, as the U.S. Border Patrol estimates the number of illegal-immigrant crossings has increased more than 50% in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley since 2012.

According to a recent investigation by NBC Nightly News, 73 illegal immigrants have been found dead among the brush in the Rio Grande Valley’s north trail since early April. The trek is the shortest available route from the border into the interior of the U.S., where immigrants become lost in the population of cities such as Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. Border Patrol believes this drastic increase reflects an increase of people running from poverty, gangs, drug cartels, and violence in both Mexico and parts of Central America.

Although many undocumented immigrants are finding their way into America to escape drugs and violence, there are also those that bring both into the country with them. As the debate on immigration continues to grow nationwide, important questions linger: Just how secure is the U.S. border with Mexico, and what should be done to fix it?  

A majority of people involved in the debate agree that most of the U.S. cities along the border are now much safer than they used to be and have much lower crime rates, thanks to high fences, increased monitoring technology, and thousands of Border Patrol and other federal agents deployed there. Then there are key congressional players such as Texas GOP Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, who have both proposed amendments to immigration bill S.744 to increase resources and standards for border security, saying the current conditions and standards just aren’t enough.

At a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill last week, many members of the GOP criticized the current bill, claiming it inefficiently secures the border and U.S. citizens that live in close proximity to border cities and rural areas.

Representative Ted Poe (R-Texas) claimed that failing to properly secure the U.S.-Mexico border will not only increase undocumented immigrant crossings, but also crime, noting that Houston was the human-trafficking capital of the U.S.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) warned that the current Congress should not make the same mistakes as the 1986 bill under President Ronald Reagan. In 1986, more than three million undocumented immigrants were eligible for legalization through amnesty laws. This time around, more than 11 million would become eligible.

Although aware of the negative opinions and possible consequences of her husband's actions, people like Mrs. Ferrera believes that her husband shouldn’t be punished for wanting to escape crime and poverty at the chance to live a better life.

“He is not a bad person,” she said. “He loves me, he loves our children, and he works long hours to support us. There should be a less complicated system in place to help people like my husband who would like to come to America the right way, but don’t have the money or the means and are desperate.”

Chris Crane, President of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council (ICE), told House Judicial Committee members Wednesday that the Senate Gang of Eight bill weakens U.S. interior enforcement as it undermines the rule of law by refusing to put a stop to the abuses of prosecutorial discretion and administrative priorities.

“If an illegal alien were to simply claim eligibility under the new law, agencies such as ICE are forced to release the immigrant back into communities,” he said. “This would include serious criminals who have committed felonies, who have assaulted officers, and who prey on children.”

Crane addressed concern that the bill in itself gives far greater authority and control to the president and secretary of homeland security, and that these actions are the last thing the U.S. needs.

“If the laws enacted by Congress were not enforced following past amnesties, and certainly are not being enforced now, what possible reason would the American people have to believe that any new laws would be enforced?” he asked the committee. “Promises of future enforcement, like those in the past, are just empty promises.”

With passage of S. 744 through the Senate Judiciary Committee last Tuesday, both parties prepare for debates on the Senate floor on dozens of amendments included in the bill.  What may seem like a cut-and-dry issue to many members of Congress, for the American people, the answer appears to lie somewhere in the middle.

*First names have been changed upon request of family for legal matters

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Alexandra Booze

Alexandra serves as the Media Relations and Policy Manager for a fiscally conservative government watchdog organization based in Washington, D.C. She has handled press and policy issues in both the United States House of Representatives and Senate, as well as education and health care issues for numerous government relations firms in the D.C. metropolitan area. Her research has been featured on Fox News, Fox News Business, CNN, CBS News, Reuters, The Hill newspaper, Reason Magazine, The Washington Examiner, and Time Magazine. She received a Bachelor of Art degree in News Journalism in 2009, and a Master of Public Administration degree in 2010 from Western Kentucky University.

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