To evaluate that claim, we need to look at potential cross-border threats. Four are most cited: undocumented migration, drugs, “spillover” violence from Mexico, and terrorism.
- Migration is currently at 40-year lows, a result of both demographics (a sharp drop in children per family in Mexico) and the past 25 years’ border security crackdowns. The 408,870 people apprehended by Border Patrol in 2016 were the fourth fewest since 1972. Of these, 3 out of every 10 were Central American children and family members seeking protection from violence. Border Patrol agents say they don’t even have to chase them: in most cases, these migrants seek them out and ask for asylum or protection. The number of apprehended undocumented Mexican citizens, meanwhile, has been in a steady decline since 2004. The 190,760 apprehended in 2016 were the second-fewest since 1969.
- Seizures of many drugs are increasing along the border. Though cannabis is becoming less prevalent, CBP and the DEA report finding more cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine in recent years. As noted above, though, most of these high-value, low-volume drugs are smuggled through ports of entry. These are manned by CBP agents, not Border Patrol. Increasing Border Patrol, then, would have a negligible effect on seizures of these drugs.
- Though Mexican border states are suffering a renewed worsening of violent crime, the U.S. side of the border sees little “spillover” violence. Communities on the U.S. side are safer than most communities in the U.S. interior. There are 23 cities of over 100,000 people within 100 miles of the Mexico border. Of those 23, 18 had violent crime rates below the national average in 2015, the last year for which FBI data exist. The city with the worst rate, Tucson, is not even in the United States’ top 80.
- It is important to remain vigilant about the possibility that international terrorists might seek to cross the border illegally to do harm on U.S. soil. It is a relief to report that almost no cases in public knowledge have even come close to that scenario. (Instead, U.S. terror suspects have tended to be citizens, residents, or to have valid, or expired, U.S. visas.) Along with thorough intelligence work, preparing for this hypothesis would mean ensuring that Border Patrol’s existing staffing is “right-sized” across all nine of its sectors.
The U.S.-Mexico border is a much different place than it was when the Clinton administration began expanding Border Patrol in the early 1990s. It has changed, too, since the Bush administration accelerated that expansion after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Undocumented migration has fallen to a small fraction of what it was 15 or 20 years ago. Trade has multiplied. New technologies are changing the way vigilance works. Ports of entry have grown in importance and can’t keep up with demand, whether for smooth cross-border commerce or for detection of illicit flows. Border Patrol is struggling to avoid shrinking without relaxing new hires’ integrity standards. And the agency’s current geographical deployment seems to reflect the way cross-border flows looked in the 1990s and 2000s.
The Trump administration proposes to address this new reality by returning to the same recipe of the past 25 years. It wants yet another across-the-board increase in Border Patrol staffing. And it wants it to happen with reduced scrutiny of agents’ background and performance. This is a misguided proposal. It springs from some basic misconceptions, and it requires an urgent re-thinking.