What It Means To Have A 90-Percent Secure Border
April 24, 2013

Photo by Michel Marizco
People like Pat King, whose family ranches 40 miles from the border, will serve on a stakeholder border commission under the Senate's immigration reform proposal.

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Before the estimated 11 million people living in this country illegally can start down the long path to citizenship, the U.S.-Mexico border must reach a level of security that satisfies border hawks in Congress. And that argument may not be won from statistics alone.

In the end it will come down to places like Altar Valley in Pima County, Ariz. The obelisk peak of the Baboquivari Mountains juts into the sky and divides Arizona, the Tohono O’odham Indian reservation and Mexico.

U.S. Border Patrol agents cruise the highway, hauling horses and ATVs and giant telescopes on the back of pickup trucks. This valley is one of the five busiest areas for migrant smuggling and drug trafficking along the U.S. border with Mexico.

For the latest version of comprehensive immigration reform to go through, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will have to convince people in the four border states that the border is secure. And in Arizona, that won’t be easy. People like Pat King have lived here with their families for more than 120 years and they'll have to be consulted.

"And Ms. Napolitano saying 'well the border’s never been more secure.' Well excuse me, but we don’t report all the damages and stuff that’s going on. Why bother?" King said.

King says immigrants crossing the border illegally die of dehydration on her ranch. Drug smugglers come down from the mountains chased by Border Patrol helicopters. There are petty crimes, too. Break-ins at their cabin in the hills. Waterlines slashed open by thirsty border crossers.

"And how do you equate that? Put that in your numbers and add that in. Because it’s part of it," King said.

Under the Senate’s plan, the Department of Homeland Security has to have a strategy to achieve a 90 percent effectiveness rating across the entire border.

And here’s where that equation King is talking about comes into play. The federal government measures effectiveness using the total number of apprehensions, the total number of turnbacks — those are folks who crossed the border, saw an agent and turned back to Mexico — and the total number of gotaways, the estimate of how many got through. Let’s say the Tucson sector has 100 apprehensions in a given day. And let’s say 20 people were chased by an agent and ran back into Mexico. That’s 120. Now let’s say agents found that 10 people got away that day. Divide out those gotaways and you’re left with a 92 percent effectiveness rate.

As it turns out, according to current government figures, the agency is already nearly meeting that 90 percent benchmark. Tucson Sector has an 87 percent rating. Laredo, 84. San Diego, 91 percent.

But the numbers are in some doubt. Measuring gotaways and turnbacks is an inexact science. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that not all the sectors measure them the same away.

Tony Coulson ran the Drug Enforcement Administration Tucson office. He’s now a DHS consultant.

"Does 90 percent in Tucson sector mean something different than 90 percent in South Texas along the Rio Grande Valley?" he asked.

Coulson expects that difference is going to come up as the U.S. Congress continues its debate and figures out a way to have a uniform count across the border.

To hit that 90 percent benchmark, the agency will receive $6.5 billion over the next five years to hire more agents, bring in more drones and to add more border walls and vehicle barriers.

Rebecca Orozco, a Southern Arizona historian, says it’s important to remember that we’ve been through this debate many times before, dating back to the Apache Wars.

"Then following World War I, they said 'we’re gonna build a border wall.' They built a series of forts that time, [it] lasted four years before they decided it cost too much and doesn’t do enough," Orozco said.

The Senate’s plan calls for input from stakeholders along the border, some of whom will be academics like Orozco, or ranchers like King. And satisfying their concerns may prove more elusive than hitting a 90 percent success rate.