Border Security, Or Just Immigration Reform Obstructionism?

Opponents of immigration reform are using "border security" as a shield to hide their true desire to kill the very idea of immigration reform.


The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which has been among the strongest supporters of immigration reform on the right, takes on those in the Republican Party insisting that border security be established before any immigration reform is enacted:

The immigration debate has turned once again to “securing the border,” and Republicans are once again demanding more enforcement as the price of their support. Here’s the real story: For some Republicans, border security has become a ruse to kill reform. The border could be defended by the 10th Mountain Division and Claymore antipersonnel mines and it wouldn’t be secure enough.

As we noted last month (“Border Security Reality Check,” May 2), the U.S.-Mexico border is more secure today than it has been in decades. According to Border Patrol statistics, illegal entries are at a 40-year low. Apprehensions of illegal entrants exceeded 1.1 million in 2005, but in both 2011 and 2012 the number was below 365,000

According to a study by the Government Accountability Office, the number of illegal immigrants who escaped capture at the nine major crossing points from San Diego to El Paso fell an astonishing 86% between 2006 and 2011. All the talk-show shouting about America under siege from immigrants streaming across the Rio Grande is fiction.

Some of this decline is surely due to the lousy U.S. job market, but some results from the border security mobilization that began in the 1990s and really got going after 2006. Today more than 21,000 agents patrol the border. Enforcement spending is up more than 50% in a decade for everything from 650 miles of fencing to military aircraft, marine vessels, drones, surveillance equipment, infrared camera towers and detention centers.

The Gang of Eight bill now on the Senate floor would add another $4.5 billion or so for border control. That means still more agents, drones and fencing. The bill also puts in place vast new internal enforcement measures to apprehend the roughly 40% of illegal immigrants who do not cross the border illegally but overstay their visas.

Republicans, of course, have responded to this by demanding that any immigration reform bill address “border security” before any provisions regarding immigration reform are actually implemented. The alternative plan proposed by Senator Rand Paul in April includes a provision that would require Congress to certify that “border security,” whatever that means, is achieved before any of the immigration-related provisions go into effect. As I noted at the time, that plan was inherently unworkable. This morning, the attention of the Senate of the was focused on an amendment offered by Texas Senator John Cornyn that would require joint certification by the Department of Homeland Security and the Government Accountability Office that the situation along the southern border has met certain specified criteria. That amendment was defeated on a largely party line vote early this afternoon. However, this is likely only the first of many battles that the GOP will wage using the idea of “border security” as a way to attack immigration reform.

As the Journal notes, this follows a familiar pattern because it was the same canard that the right pulled in 2007 to kill immigration reform that was backed by President Bush and the party’s eventual 2008 Presidential nominee. In reality, though, it really doesn’t accomplish anything:

If reducing illegal immigration is the real objective, Republicans should try to improve this reform. Not by tightening border security, but by making it easier for immigrants to enter and work in the U.S. legally. The bill includes more green cards for high-skilled workers and new guest-worker programs for low-skilled and farm workers, but the visa quotas are inadequate. If Republicans really want to reduce the future flow of illegals, they would use their leverage to expand these guest-worker programs, rather than trying to militarize the border even further.

By far the most effective policy in reducing illegal immigration in the last 60 years was the Bracero guest-worker program of the 1950s and early ’60s. Illegal immigration was almost eliminated for a decade as crossings fell from one million to fewer than 50,000 a year once migrant workers had legal channels to enter. Yet many of those on the right who claim to favor legal immigration also oppose guest-worker programs and other visa expansions. This betrays that they really want no new immigration.

The value of all of this additional border spending is probably marginal, and at some point it becomes offensive to U.S. values of freedom and human dignity. We doubt many Americans would support anything like the police-state measures that would be required to reduce illegal immigration to near-zero as the restrictionist right wants as the price of reform.

The real game here is to kill a bill that would create a more pro-growth and humane immigration system for America and the millions already here or in line to come. If the right succeeds in blowing all this up, one wonders what comes next? Perhaps Republicans can campaign in 2014 on self-deporting the 11 million illegals who are here now. That worked so well for Mitt Romney.

As I’ve noted before, there’s something entirely phony about this entire discussion about “border security.” The very phrase itself is so amorphous that it’s hard to pin immigration opponents down on what it actually means. Are they referring to a world in which fewer people are getting across the border illegally? Well, as the Journal notes above, and in this piece from last month, that’s already the case. Illegal entries to the United States are at 40 year lows, and overall immigration from Mexico has hit 60 year lows. Indeed, last year, we learned that net immigration from Mexico to the U.S. may be below zero.  Are they talking about increased enforcement of existing laws? Well, President Obama is on a pace to have more deportations under his watch than President Bush did in his eight years. By any rational, objective, measure, our borders are more secure today than they have been in quite some time and yet opponents of immigration reform are behaving as if there are thousands of people just walking across it on a daily basis with no effort by the Obama Administration to try to stop it. That kind of behavior leads one to think that these Senators care more about blocking immigration reform of any kind than they actually do about the “border security” that they keep talking about.

Of course that’s exactly what people like Cornyn, Ted Cruz, and others want to do. They want to kill the immigration reform bill pending in the Senate, or indeed the very idea of immigration reform itself. Their motivations, quite obviously, are patently political in that they are clearly pandering to a GOP base that feels the same way. Their moves are politically stupid, however, given the fact that poll after poll has shown strong public support for the basic provisions of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” plan and the fact that the GOP’s position on immigration is the primary motivation behind the antipathy that Latino voters feel for the party. Indeed, a recent poll shows that Latino voters are strongly opposed to a “borders first” approach to immigration reform. And yet that’s exactly the road that the opponents of immigration reform suggest that the GOP follow regardless of what Latino voters, and Americans as a whole, may think about the topic. As the Journal notes, that’s a strategy that worked very well for Mitt Romney last year. Oh, wait.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Congress, Policing, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Matt Bernius says:

    As Marco Rubio notes, the problem with “Secure the Border” first is that it essentially also represents a tacit support of fiscal irresponsibility and deficit spending. (source:

    In the Rubio supported proposal, current illegal residents have to register, pay a fine, and go on the tax rolls. Which means that there would be an influx of money that could be immediately applied to bringing down the federal debt, or at the very least helping pay for border security.

    The decision to hold off action until the border is “secure” (a term that no one can seem to actually define) means deferring that added revenue and borrowing further money to help pay to secure the border.

  2. al-Ameda says:

    Well, as the Journal notes above, and in this piece from last month, that’s already the case. Illegal entries to the United States are at 40 year lows, and overall immigration from Mexico has hit 60 year lows. Are they talking about increased enforcement of existing laws? Well, President Obama is on a pace to have more deportations under his watch than President Bush did in his eight years. By any rational measure, our borders are more secure today than they have been in quite some time and yet opponents of immigration reform are behaving as if there are thousands of people just walking across it on a daily basis with no effort by the Obama Administration to try to stop it.

    Clearly, Republicans are gambling that the public believes otherwise.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Circular firing squads have nothing on today’s GOP.

  4. Mu says:

    Alas, the 10th mountain division alone wouldn’t do you much good; just for comparison, the GDR used 45,000 troops to secure the inner-German border of 850 miles. The US-Mexican border is more than twice that length.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Oh and a tip of the hat to Steve Benin for bringing us this priceless quote from the esteemed Senator Ted Cruz of Texas:

    Cruz, on the Senate floor [Wednesday], made the argument that we should oppose immigration reform for the sake of undocumented immigrants. He stood before a blown-up picture of a graveyard as he solemnly eulogized on behalf of unnamed souls who had been killed crossing the border:

    “No one who cares about our humanity would want to maintain a system where the border isn’t secure,” Cruz said, noting that “vulnerable women and children” are being preyed upon by drug dealers and are being “left to die in the desert.”

    Yes, suffer the children.…. Gaaaahhhhhghhgghggg……..

  6. Brett says:

    If you go over to some of the more strident, openly anti-immigration conservative blogs, you usually find them ranting about how the bill will create 14 million new voters who will vote themselves benefits and bring in another 50 million “anchor babies”. You’re not going to convince them on the economic benefits of immigration.

  7. Caj says:

    Wanting more border security is a load of crap! President Obama has done more than anyone on that front. Republicans are looking for any excuse to not vote for immigration reform. They really think the voting public is stupid when in reality they are the ones who are stupid. Still, let the fools carry on and act like imbeciles they are. It would be great to see the back of that party and have another party form that actually gives a damn about the country!

  8. Matt Bernius says:

    The entire 14 million new voters is particularly interesting as it hinges on the assumption that immediately after immigration reform passes the Democrats will somehow pass a second round of legislation that will skip over the entire 13 years before you can become a citizen thing.

    Of course, this requires the Dems to be able to get that sort of legislation through Congress. And the evidence of that ability — especially in the Senate — is rather lacking.

    It’s worth nothing how this sort of conspiratorial thinking is similar to how the ACA/Obamacare is designed to fail in order to get us to single payer thinking.

  9. legion says:

    If a Republican Member of Congress has anything to do with it, it’s going to be obstruction.

    This has been another edition of Simple Answers to Simple Questions.

  10. Rafer Janders says:


    Alas, the 10th mountain division alone wouldn’t do you much good; just for comparison, the GDR used 45,000 troops to secure the inner-German border of 850 miles.

    Yes, but how many West Germans snuck into East Germany during that time? Zero, that’s how many. So the danged Wall worked!

  11. Andre Kenji says:

    Republicans are assuming that people in Latin America are going to cross the border(In fact, overstaying Visas is much simpler than to cross the desert) forever. That was an attractive preposition because it was much easier to find work in the US, and because the difference between incomes and currency rates allowed people to work in the US(Even doing things like gardening and washing dishes), then to save money and then open a small grocery store or buy a house in Guerrero and in Guatemala.

    The increasing incomes and cost of living and stronger currency rates are making this preposition more difficult. Besides that, jobs in the US are more scarce, and a cynical could argue that for many categories of workers – janitors and restaurant people – it´s much easier to make a living for your family in many large Latin American cities than in the US.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    Additionally, the demographics of Latin America and the Caribbean strongly suggest that the US is unlikely to see the large numbers of immigrants from the region, legal or illegal, that it did over the period of the last thirty years.

    Basically, I think that Republicans are fighting the last war.

  13. Woody says:

    First of all, the fact that our southern border (no one is talking Canada here) is more secure than ever right now won’t get much play on TV – they’ll throw a Republican up there for “balance,” who will challenge fact, because “everyone knows.” Then the talking heads will shrug their shoulders (“Views differ!”) before moving on to some other, depth-free topic.

    They’ll do the same on Fox, only the talking heads will join the Republican in jeering at the stoopid liberal.

    I think it’s entirely predictable that the GOP is continually obstructing the immigration bill. The hard right activists want to punish The Illegals, not accommodate them. A Republican who challenges them will be primaried with gusto. Every one of them north of Tennessee will eagerly grasp any reason – no matter how transparently flimsy (aka Senator Cruz’s safety concerns) to avoid taking a position on immigration. Southern Republicans outside of Texas have made their positions crystal clear.

  14. Moosebreath says:

    I suspect that today’s failure to pass the farm bill likely points to the fate of the immigration bill. In order to get a majority of Republican House members to support the bill, they had to include items not acceptable to Democrats (in the farm bill’s case, cuts to food stamps). However, it isn’t enough for the fire-breathing end of the Republican caucus, so they can’t get a majority with just Republicans, and complain loudly about not getting any Democratic support.

    As TPM put it, “You can watch the farm bill fail and reason that Boehner might think immigration reform isn’t worth it. Or you can watch the farm bill fail and reason that he might decide to dispense with all the member management theatrics and throw in with Democrats and GOP donors. But you can’t watch the farm bill fail and see the House GOP passing a Hastert-rule compliant immigration reform bill and going into conference with the Senate.”

  15. Mercer says:

    The WSJ concept of immigration “reform” is to have vast numbers of guest workers who do not become citizens. Bush pushed a plan in 2005 for unlimited guest workers. Is this what Doug and all the commenters agreeing with him want?

  16. Matt Bernius says:

    hmmm… let me think…

    So the choice between (a) status quo — having countless “undocumented” illegal guest workers who exist in the shadows and pay no taxes beyond local/state sales tax — and (b) a system that has these people register and actually pay into the system (not to mention recognizing the fact that a lot of these folks ultimately don’t want to stay in the US).

    Wow. Hard choice there.

    Given how well the entire “lets stick our head in the sand a pretend this problem will go away through self deportation approach” has worked so far, I’m having a hard time seeing how any conservative (read as pragmatic realist) would think inaction is still the way to go.

    Because the truth is that there isn’t another option. This is a market created situation and that means it isn’t going away. And it won’t police itself away either.