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Border crossings a mystery
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Security along the U.S. border with Mexico is perhaps the key factor in the debate over comprehensive immigration reform. Those who believe the border is mostly secure already are more inclined to support the plan of the bipartisan Gang of Eight in the Senate -- legalization first, followed by enhanced security. Those who believe the border is still far from secure are more likely to oppose the Gang of Eight's approach, insisting heightened security is in place before the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants are legalized.
Now, a new report from the Council on Foreign Relations could have a significant effect on the conversation -- and cast real doubt on whether the government's border security statistics are reliable. If the report is correct, more illegal immigrants are making it past U.S. authorities than officials say.
"The Department of Homeland Security releases only a single output number: the total arrests, or apprehensions, made by Border Patrol agents of unauthorized crossers in the vicinity of the border," the authors write. "The apprehension rate for unauthorized crossers or the estimated number of successful illegal entries cannot be answered simply by counting arrest totals."
No, they can't. To find some of the answers that Homeland Security won't provide, the authors looked to other data -- interviews with people who have tried to cross the border illegally; analysis of people who have been caught attempting to cross multiple times; and what is called "known flow," that is, the actual observations by the Border Patrol of people trying to cross into the United States.
Putting together all the evidence, what they found is U.S. authorities are catching somewhere between 40 percent and 55 percent of the people who try to cross the border illegally. That's more than in the past, when the Border Patrol had less manpower, but it's still just somewhere around half, or even less.
To that 40 percent to 55 percent who are apprehended, DHS adds another number referred to as "turnbacks." Those are people who try to enter illegally, make some progress, and then retreat back into Mexico. There are estimates the turnback rate across the whole border is about 23 percent.
Some border experts put those two numbers together -- apprehensions and turnbacks -- and come up with what is called an overall effectiveness rate. If the apprehension rate is, say, 47 percent, and the turnbacks are 23 percent, then that would be a 70 percent effectiveness rate. (Assuming the government knows the total number that tried to get in, which it doesn't.)
But things might change. Recently the House Homeland Security Committee unanimously passed a bill that would force DHS to come up with a clear, definite measurement of border security. It's absolutely critical. Until there is such a measurement, the immigration reform debate is taking place in the dark.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.