The U.S. immigration system is broken and in need of comprehensive reform. But the border surge amendment proposed last week by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and agreed to Monday — which would double the size of the Border Patrol and mandate an additional 700 miles of border fencing — is misguided and would be a great waste of taxpayer dollars.
Congress is right to be concerned about avoiding the mistakes of the Immigration Reform Act of 1986, which provided legal status to several million people but did virtually nothing to reduce illegal migration. But it also has to consider what has happened since then.
Over the last 10 years, the U.S. has spent billions to double the size of the Border Patrol to 21,000 agents. Fencing has been installed along virtually every single section of border where it makes sense to do so, primarily in urbanized areas along the Mexican border. These things have helped. The border is more secure today than it has ever been, and the goal of a 90% or greater apprehension rate, championed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and others, is within reach.
The next task, therefore, shouldn't be to further tighten the border, which has diminishing returns at this point. Instead, the goal should be to cut off the "job magnet" that draws nearly all illegal immigrants to the United States.
Removing incentives to cross the border illegally will require ratcheting up sanctions (criminal and administrative) for U.S. employers hiring people not authorized to work here, sparing those employers who use E-Verify and hire only individuals cleared to work legally. This would, of course, require some additional resources to improve E-Verify and to enforce employer sanctions, but it would take nowhere near the tens of billions of dollars required to hire 20,000 more Border Patrol agents and build hundreds of miles of fencing.
Based on my experience, most employers will comply with the law if there is the potential for jail time for corporate executives coupled with heavy corporate fines for illegal hiring. That has been the nation's experience with antitrust and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations, to use just two examples of how tougher penalties combined with effective enforcement have resulted in widespread compliance by U.S. companies. We should take the same approach to put an end to the practice of hiring undocumented workers.
Adopting this course of action will not only reduce the numbers of illegal migrants attempting to enter the United States, it will also lead to a higher apprehension rate of those still attempting to cross the border. This is simple mathematics: With fewer people pouring in, law enforcers will be able to concentrate more effort on each illegal entry that is attempted. The apprehension rate will thus go up without increases in resources, providing both the best and least expensive means for achieving a 90% apprehension rate and more tightly controlling the borders.
This is not to say that Congress should authorize no additional investments in border security. In particular, there is a need to upgrade and expand detection capabilities at the border. Not only can greater detection lead to a greater apprehension rate, it also can increase border agents' ability to accurately measure illegal crossings (and thus credibly determine the apprehension rate). It would also permit the use of a CompStat-style management approach, which would evaluate statistical data to effectively and quickly deploy Border Patrol agents to areas seeing spikes in attempted crossings.
The Senate is clearly trying to make immigration reform more politically palatable by focusing on enforcement. That is an understandable goal. But the so-called border surge proposal would simply throw a phenomenal amount of money at border enforcement without achieving control of the border. There are cheaper and more effective ways of achieving that goal.
It seems that the Senate has chosen its path forward. But there's still hope that members of the House will understand that cutting off the employment magnet would be by far the most cost-effective way to achieve border control, deter over-stays and move the current illegal population to legal status more quickly. Now that would be a true "grand bargain."
Robert C. Bonner headed the Drug Enforcement Administration from 1990 to 1993 and served as a commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection from 2001 to 2005.