Yesterday, President Obama sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi formally asking for $600 million in additional border security spending to fund 1,000 additional Border Patrol agents, 160 additional ICE agents, two unmanned aircraft systems, extra Border Patrol canine teams and improved infrastructure along the Southwest Border. In a tandem move today, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano announced several new DHS initiatives to bolster security along the Southwest border. Although Secretary Napolitano trumpeted DHS’s new border initiatives as well as past achievements, she also acknowledged that the border can never be hermetically sealed and that stalling immigration reform by highlighting border security issues is not the answer to our immigration problems.

At a Center for Strategic and International Studies panel discussion today, Secretary Napolitano laid out several new border security initiatives, including:

  • New partnerships between DHS and state and local law enforcement, specifically the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which allows non-border local law enforcement to partner with other agencies at the border
  • New information sharing capabilities between law enforcement on the border and DHS and DOJ information systems, improved fusion centers across the border and a new “suspicious activities” reporting program
  • Improved technology (i.e. unmanned aircraft systems), more Border Patrol Agents and ICE investigators at the border and “Project Roadrunner,” a new partnership with the Office of National Drug Control Policy that reads license plates to target drug traffickers
  • Expansion of the Joint Criminal Alien Removal Taskforce and the deployment of more ICE officers in an effort to prioritize dangerous criminal aliens in state and local jails
  • Increased joint training programs with Mexican law enforcement agencies that focus on money laundering and human trafficking

While it may not be a coincidence that these new border initiatives come at a time when “securing the border” is playing a central role in the national immigration debate—both in mid-term election campaigning and as states (like Arizona, Nebraska, etc.) pass restrictive immigration measures—Secretary Napolitano herself admits that securing the border alone won’t fix our immigration problems.

We think these resources we’ve asked for matter because they will augment the efforts that have been underway over the past years and accelerated over the past 18 months. The plain fact of the matter is the border is as secure now as it’s ever been, but we know we can always do more. And that will always be the case. It’s a big border—1,960 miles across that Southwest border. It’s some of the roughest toughest geographical terrain in the world. The notion that you’re going to seal that border somehow is something that anybody who’s been involved in the actual “doing of law enforcement”—the front line work of law enforcement—would say that you’re never going to seal that border…recognizing also that there’s a lot of trade and commerce we want going back and forth. Mexico, for 22 of our states, is our number one or two trading partner. But [these measures] will make our border even more secure and we will keep evolving as indeed border threats keep evolving. But the notion that you’re going to somehow seal the border and only at that point will you discuss immigration reform, that is not an answer to the problem.

Similarly, local law enforcement realizes that enforcing federal immigration laws is a big problem—not only for want of scarce resources, but also because chasing non-violent immigrants erodes trust between police and the local community. Robert L. Davis, Chief of Police in San Jose and President of the Major Cities Chiefs Associations, points out that enforcing immigration laws is a matter of resource and priority:

Clearly what we would like to see in terms of local law enforcement, specifically from the Major Cities Chiefs Association representing the largest cities in the country, is comprehensive immigration reform. As the Secretary mentioned earlier, we’ll end up with 50 separate state laws which would be a huge problem. Again, keep in mind, local law enforcement across this country is being squeezed. We’re [San Jose] the 10th largest city in the country. We’re talking about cutting our patrol forces by 80% by August. What do you, as local community members, want local law enforcement and police to be doing? Do you want us focusing on robberies, sexual assaults, domestic violence, burglaries, and traffickers? Or do you want us to focus our resources on minor immigration violations?

The bottom line is that we can keep throwing money and resources at the border, but without immigration reform, as Secretary Napolitano and Chief Davis point out, we as a country are not going to solve our immigration problems. Yes, border security is and should be a priority for DHS, but “secure the borders first” as a solution to our immigration problems without reform makes for better politicking than it does policy.

Photo by Center for American Progress Action Fund.