An Excellent Report on the Illusory and Easily Politicized Nature of Border Security Metrics

By Dan Cadman on October 23, 2019

Igor Magalhaes, writing for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has published a review of the past and present metrics used to determine border security effectiveness on our southern frontier with Mexico.

It is perhaps the best analysis of those metrics that I've seen. Magalhaes reports in-depth, and with a great deal of knowledge, on the limitations of methods and data used. This is especially important since so many observers either don't understand the interconnectivity of the variables or, if in government, unsurprisingly want to hide the limitations embedded in those measures because to reveal them is to force an honest examination of their effectiveness (or lack thereof).

One of the dirty little secrets of border security metrics, even the most basic ones such as number of apprehensions per year, is that they can be used to argue effectiveness on either side of the coin:

  • Apprehensions are significantly down over a fiscal quarter or a fiscal year? Great! Our border agents are so efficient and our technology and other measures so robust that when considered in combination, they're acting as a huge deterrent and aliens are deciding that the risk isn't worth the trek to try to cross illegally.
  • Apprehensions are significantly up over a fiscal quarter or fiscal year? Great! Our border agents are so efficient and our technology and other measures so robust that when considered in combination, there are fewer "get-aways" than ever and nearly everyone attempting illegal entry is being taken into custody, so of course apprehensions are up.

This cuts to the heart of the problem with immigration law enforcement. It's so readily susceptible to politicization depending on the wants and needs of the administration in power that it erodes public trust in the entire process. In the past, documents that I've read from government watchdogs such as the Government Accountability Office or the Office of Inspector General tend to muddle around this truth to try to soften it since even they have their political masters. Magalhaes has put his finger directly on the problem in the most direct way that I've ever seen, and kudos to him for it.

Another invaluable observation Magalhaes makes has to do with determining inflow rates, which are in turn used to determine the proportion of illegal inflow that is being apprehended. The U.S. government makes extensive use of metrics developed and maintained by Mexican institutions. The problem is, of course, that the nationality of illegal border-crossers is increasingly dominated by Central Americans from the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) and other OTMs (Other Than Mexicans), such as Haitians, Cubans, Bangladeshis, and people from dozens of other countries. While there has always been a smattering of OTMs, using Mexican metrics makes sense only as long as Mexicans constitute the vast majority of illegal entrants. That's no longer true, yet our government continues to use Mexico's outflow demographics relating to Mexican nationals as a measure of who is coming into the country. To say this is a flawed approach is egregious understatement. One can understand that operators, especially those being hit with a fire hose of exigencies every day, are not in the best position to stop, take a breath, and ask whether and how metrics are being taken and used. But that's why most departments and agencies separate analytics and policy-making from operations. Those individuals are supposed to be the ones taking the long view and adapting metrics to meet reality. Clearly DHS's policy component is leading from behind on this important matter.

One of the things I've noticed about immigration enforcement statistics (and, if truth be known, immigration benefits statistics too) is that they become part of a "hide the pea" process in which administrations claim that they will be the most transparent ever, but then start suppressing this or that bit of data for fear that it might compromise or undermine their political arguments. This has to stop. The more data given out to parse, the better informed the public will ultimately be, because think tanks such as mine — or indeed, such as those who favor more expansionist immigration policies — will be obliged to follow all of that data to its logical conclusions. As for me, I think openness cannot help but result in the public taking a more careful look at the phenomenon going on around them all day that is helping to shape — and change — the direction of the country in which they live. This is to the benefit of all.

The recommendations portion of Magalhaes' analysis could perhaps have been stronger, although there is value in that, too, particularly in his observation that collecting the metrics requires a more holistic approach, one that includes a reckoning of the toll that mechanisms such as asylum and credible fear claims take on our country's ability to secure its borders and enforce the immigration laws that are on the books. If Congress wants to consider altering those mechanisms to broaden or further delimit them, then what better place to start its examination than in having a comprehensive, honest, and interleaved statistical picture?

As things stand, again and again in any number of draft legislative proposals I've seen, the language on border security and enforcement uses phrases such as "operational control of the border" to lay out guideposts by which to measure effectiveness. Unfortunately, many of the phrases these bills adopt are suspect because they cannot objectively be quantified by consistent measurable, observable, repeatable means — and they don't take into account the other influencing variables such as asylum. The result is that such legislation won't in the end be useful.

Magalhaes's paper is an excellent starting point for the jettisoning of illusory, easily manipulated terms unless they can be modified and quantifiable in a way that takes them beyond the subjective and political realms. This in turn requires a hard look and a lot of honest discussion. It's my sincere hope that the policy folks at the Department of Homeland Security, generally, and Customs and Border Protection, specifically, give his analysis a close look.