Immigration Reform 2013: "100% Secure Borders" Is Never Going to Happen

The concept of “100% secure borders” may be the linchpin in the ultimate success or failure of the Gang of Eight’s comprehensive immigration reform bill. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) stated that the current bill has a major problem because “it doesn’t stop illegal immigration. If anything it makes the problem worse by not securing the border and by incentivizing future illegal immigration.” However, the notion of "100% secure borders" is a pipe dream.

Senator Cruz’s belief that “secure borders equals immigration reform” is outdated. There is zero value added when he uses circular logic (“I believe in its current form, the bill will not become law, and if Congress cannot pass immigration reform, that is a terrible outcome”) or when he criticizes Senate Democrats and those that believe that 100% secure borders are not logistically feasible.

Rather than discuss how to achieve secure borders, policymakers should first have an honest conversation about why some believe that a 100% secure border will fix the problems we face with illegal immigration. There are three groups that will ensure that we will never have 100% secure borders: the illegal immigrants, the smugglers, and the U.S. employers.

It is true that both surveillance and law enforcement have expanded on the U.S.-Mexico border. It is also true that some of their actions have been successful. The Department of Homeland Security shows that illegal immigration from Mexico has dropped an estimated 75% since 2005, and the borders are more difficult to cross than in the 1980s or 1990s. However, just because border security has increased does not mean that it can catch everyone. Will illegal border crossing ever end? 

The answer is no.

First of all, while senators and policy analysts are discussing surveillance methods and the estimated $5.5 billion border-security plan, migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico are paying $5,000 each to cross the border illegally, risking death, kidnapping, severed limbs, and extortion. This is an extremely high price, yet plenty are willing to pay it.

On May 9, the Washington Post reported that as Mexico’s illegal migration numbers have decreased, the numbers from Central America — namely Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — are skyrocketing. Why? “There’s nothing in Honduras,” said 18-year-old Jairo Guevara. Indeed, the desperation to leave their home countries and the higher wages in the U.S. will mean that some, like Guevara, will always be ready to take to risk to cross the border illegally. We should not underestimate the lengths some people will go to for the improved quality of life in the United States.

Secondly, there will always be people willing to break the law and smuggle in migrants, charging exorbitantly high rates and offering little help should they get deported, sick, or encounter logistical problems. The smugglers collect money and have no incentive to look out for the migrants’ well-being. Who are these smugglers? They are members of criminal gangs, cartels, and extortionists, getting rich off of the lucrative illegal-border-crossing industry. They are in the business of ensuring that borders are never 100 percent secure.

Lastly, there is still demand from U.S. employers for immigrant labor. The demand may have reduced post-financial crisis, but it still exists. Immigrant labor is still highly demanded in the agriculture industry. Steve Nunley, manager of a 3,000-acre apple orchard in Washington, states that procuring legal immigrant workers through H2-A visas is cost-prohibitive, so he employs illegal immigrants. He employs more than 200 illegal immigrants to pick apples, yet is “down 40% from the labor” he needs. The demand for immigrant labor is still much larger than the supply.

Illegal border crossing will never end, because there will always be some that demand immigrant labor (Nunley), some (like Guevara) that are willing to pay the price to cross, and some (like cartel members) that will figure out how to break the law and reap the rewards. Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations states, “Unless there are legal programs that allow some orderly way for immigrants to come and work in the United States, smugglers will continue to fill that demand illegally.”

As policymakers such as Cruz discuss comprehensive immigration reform, they should not get bogged down in details about surveillance cameras or miles of fencing, but should focus on why border security is a problem. A 100% secure border is not realistically possible because of the risks that illegal immigrants, smugglers, and U.S. employers are willing to take. Each party has strong incentives to continue bringing illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border, and a big fence, the Rio Grande, or Border Patrol will not hinder all of them.

Only when Cruz and his fellow warriors get over their preoccupation with 100% secure borders and discuss the root causes of illegal immigration will we begin to see progress.

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Jessie Bullock

A Stanford University M.A. Candidate, Spanish and Portuguese speaking girl, Jessie focuses her research on Latin American policy, drug policy, and agricultural policy. You can probably find her talking about Brazil with a newspaper in one hand and glass of wine in the other.

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