Old thinking on border security was on grand display today during a House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee hearing titled “Securing our Borders – Operational Control and the Path Forward.” Congress’ seemingly insatiable appetite for border enforcement does not seem to be assuaged by the reality at the border. Despite the record number of resources added to border enforcement over the past decade, the number of undocumented immigrants has risen to record levels. It has also created an unintended but real boon for the criminal cartels that now have a steady flow of migrants to smuggle into the U.S. But there are substantive and realistic efforts Congress can make to help secure the border.

The starkest example of old thinking at the hearing today came from Congressman Mike Rodgers of Alabama who asked Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher the least thoughtful questions of the hearing. “What do you need to secure the border? What do you need to provide that rock solid prevention of illegal immigration?” Rodgers was clearly talking about money—how much money would CBP need. But the answer isn’t in monetary form. Congress has appropriated record amounts of money to personnel and technology at the border and the number of deportations has increased dramatically. But the only way to truly secure the border is to address the root causes of unauthorized immigration and other negative activity at the border.

In a publication today by researchers at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, Eric Olson and David Shirk discuss how record levels of spending on border security have, in fact, made our border less secure:

Concentrated enforcement at the border has not increased the net effectiveness of counter-drug or immigration-control efforts. Indeed, no matter where you stand on the debate on drugs or unauthorized immigration, nearly everyone agrees on one thing: no specific policy decision to beef up border security in the last 20 to 30 years has significantly reduced the flow of illicit drugs and people into the United States. The accumulation of 11 million undocumented immigrants—often at a rate of over 400,000 annually—has provided a testament to this failure.

Olson and Shirk disentangle the multiple missions at the border—drug trafficking, arms trafficking, and illegal immigration among them. They find that Congress appears most interested in immigration. In order to truly address border security, they recommend strategic deployment of personnel, improved intelligence sharing and law enforcement in cooperation with Mexican law enforcement, and comprehensive immigration reform that includes a legalization program that would bring otherwise law-abiding immigrants out of the shadows and onto the grid so workers can be deciphered from dangerous criminals. They write:

Rather than focus all our efforts on patrolling the border, security might be enhanced by redeploying U.S. resources and personnel on intelligence-based law-enforcement efforts. For example, rather than increasing outbound inspections to disrupt the trafficking of bulk cash, the U.S. should focus law-enforcement efforts on hub cities where traffickers gather and package cash to bring back to Mexico. Likewise, collaborative law-enforcement efforts that focus on illegal gun sales in high traffic areas near the border have resulted in more cases being referred for prosecution, and are more effective than costly and disruptive attempts to monitor border crossings.

Congress may persist with the unrealistic notion that we can build enough fences, erect enough technology and deploy enough officers, but we still won’t prevent or bring an end to illegal immigration with enforcement alone. Now that there are thoughtful alternatives being offered, it’s about time Congress took a realistic look at the border and begin work on sensible approaches to solving the problems at our southern border.

Photo by hermmermferm.