November 21, 1993
"Realistically, the Border Patrol is a Deterrent, Not a Wall"
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
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CALIFORNIA SEN. Dianne Feinstein wants 1,400 more agents for the
U.S. Border Patrol, because, in her phrase, "The border is the most porous
thing since sponge cake."
Increasing the size of the Border Patrol can probably make the U.S. border
as much of a barrier as devil's food cake, or perhaps even pound cake. But the
border will always be more porous than good brownies. And no matter how you slice
it, crossing the border illegally is going to be a piece of cake for a determined
To understand why, begin by reviewing the border of the continental United
The U.S.-Mexico border, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, is 1,933
miles. The Pacific coastline, from San Diego to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in
Washington, is another 1,293 miles. The U.S. Geological Survey calculates the
length of the U.S.-Canada border from Washington to Maine at 3,987 miles. The
Atlantic coastline, from the Bay of Fundy in Maine to the Florida Keys, is 2,069
miles. The Gulf of Mexico coast from Key West, Florida, to Brownsville, Texas,
adds 1,631 more miles.
Grand total: 10,913 miles of border. But the problem of blocking illegal immigrants
is even harder than the mileage count suggests.
Remember that the Border Patrol needs to be in place 24 hours a day, seven
days a week, because illegal immigrants don't necessarily travel during business
hours. Moreover, crossing the border is completely legal for a great many people.
In 1991, 19 million non-immigrants were admitted with legal visas. About 15
million were tourists; the rest were business visitors, temporary workers, students,
those who work for foreign governments or international associations, and so on.
Overall, there were 455 million legal border crossings into the United States
in 1991, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. (An unknown
number of these crossings -- probably a lot of them -- count the same persons
more than once.) About two-thirds of the border crossings were by foreigners;
the other third by U.S. citizens.
Estimates of the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States are understandably
vague, but most place the flow at a few hundred thousand per year.
One common standard of performance for the Border Patrol is the number of apprehensions
-- which increased from 71,000 in 1961 to a high of 1.8 million in 1986. The total
for 1991, the last year for which figures are available, was 1.2 million.
Apprehensions are affected both by the number of people trying to enter illegally,
and by the resources devoted to catching them. In general, increasing the resources
of the Border Patrol by, say, 15 percent leads to about a 15 percent increase
in the number of apprehensions. By this measure, about half of the increase in
apprehensions of illegal immigrants from 1967 to the peak in 1986 can be ascribed
to higher enforcement resources.
Economic factors are a main determinant of how many people try to enter the
United States illegally. For example, when the U.S. economy was in recession in
the early 1980s, coming here looked less attractive, and the number of border
Conversely, when the U.S. economy boomed in the mid-1980s, while the Mexican
economy staggered backward under an external debt crisis and internal economic
mismanagement, border apprehensions climbed to a record. As the U.S. economy has
cooled off in recent years and the Mexican economy has seen the benefits of its
economic reforms, border apprehensions have declined again.
In the end, however, apprehensions are not necessarily the best way to measure
the performance of the Border Patrol. After all, being "apprehended"
doesn't prevent entry. The same person may be caught several times, perhaps even
many times in a month or a year, before eventually succeeding in crossing the
Even more important, the real purpose of the Border Patrol is not the impossible
mission of apprehending all illegal immigrants, every time they try. Instead,
the Border Patrol increases the risks and costs of illegal immigration, and thus
dissuades many people from trying at all.
The ongoing success of the Border Patrol is that the flow of illegal immigrants
is measured in hundreds of thousands, not millions, or even tens of millions.
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