Opaque DHS Border Study Implies Diminishing Returns for BP Staff Increases

By David North on November 12, 2010

I may be completely wrong, but I read into a new and rather opaque DHS research document an implication that increasing spending on Border Patrol staff may be reaching the point of diminishing returns.

The study, just issued by the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS), is entitled "An Analysis of Migrant Smuggling Costs along the Southwest Border" and was written by three OIS staffers – Bryan Roberts, Derekh Cornwell, and Scott Borger, plus Gordon Hanson, who is with the University of California at San Diego.

It does not mention the concept of diminishing returns in relation to Border Patrol staffing; that is what I sensed is the case.

Whenever Washington decision-makers want to make the point that they are serious about immigration law enforcement, they hire more agents for the Mexican border, and these actions can be measured by a handy metric, the number of agent hours devoted to the mainline enforcement operations between the ports of entry; this is known as "linewatch."

Hiring more patrol agents is, I am sure, a good idea but it may well be that other actions – such as steeper jail terms for human smuggling, or more vigorous interior enforcement of the immigration law – are more useful actions than simply adding more officers at the edge of the nation. Operation Streamline, a non-favored program with this administration, one that imposes steeper penalties for those crossing illegally, would be an excellent example of a shift in tactics rather than a simple expansion of enforcement staff. More, taller fences would help, too.

For more on better ways to manage the Mexican border, see the thoughtful blogs of my colleague, Janice Kephart.

The most recent OIS document is festooned with the hallmarks of today's social science: charts, tables, footnotes in tiny type, discussions of "statistical noise" and "adjusted, trimmed samples," regression analyses and log data; it appears to be written for other social scientists, and not for either policy makers or patrol agents.

That said, I think I found it instructive, if heavy going.

On its first page the authors explain: "The impact of enforcement on illegal immigration depends on how enforcement affects migration costs and how migration costs affect the decision to migrate. Our goal in this paper is to estimate the impact that enforcement has on the price smugglers charge to bring illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border."

So far, so good. Both the Border Patrol and some academics have been, for years, gathering information on how much smugglers charge for different "smuggling products." These products may vary from something as inexpensive and simple as help crossing the Rio Grande to an escorted trip from somewhere in the interior of Mexico all the way to some place in the interior of the U.S. The longer the trip, the more difficult the obstacles (including enforcement), the higher the price. Further, the smuggling fee for a young healthy male will be lower than for a feebler person, or for a pregnant woman. On the other hand, the more competition among would-be smugglers, the lower the price.

The authors probably had a wonderful time playing with all these variables; I envy them their access to this trove of information. (They write in a tradition, however, that discourages the recording of such frivolous thoughts, or even the infusion of revealing anecdotes.)

The raw information on smuggling payments comes from interviews with illegal aliens, many of whom are reluctant to discuss the matter. Most of those interviewed had been caught in the act of entering the nation illegally. The data collection has been going on for more than a decade, and it deals only with Mexican nationals.

There is little use of dollar data in the report, but in Table 1, the authors quote average smuggling costs, apparently in 2005 dollars, over the years 1993 to 2006, as ranging from $1,182 to $1,970 in four of the studies used. The authors note that the average smuggling price has increased over the recent years, as enforcement efforts have been expanded.

(Sidebar thought: if we ever get to a mass amnesty program USCIS might bear these numbers in mind when setting its legalization fees. Clearly if it is worth up $1,970 to come to the U.S. on a single illegal trip, it should be worth a lot more to be allowed to stay here forever legally. The legalization fee calculation, of course, is one that I hope we will never have to make.)

There is a scary calculation in the report that is central to it. It is that the relationship between smuggling fees, on one hand, and additional enforcement, as measured by additional linewatch hours, on the other. The authors say that for each 10 percent increase in enforcement, in the period 2000 to 2008, there was a 5.6 percent increase in the smuggling fee. Another researcher covering the same field, Christina Gathmann, estimates the fee increase at 2.5 percent when there is a 10 percent increase in linewatch hours.

The OIS study and Gathmann's may both be incorrect, but they both point in the same general direction. Maybe 5.6 percent increase in the fee decreases illicit migration attempts by 5.6 percent, but that linkage is not explored in the OIS paper.

Let's put some real numbers to work here. If there are 17,000 patrol agents at the southern border, and if 10 percent of that is 1,700, and if it costs, say, $200,000 a year to cover the new agents' salaries and fringes, and the agents' training and equipment, and the overhead costs, then adding 10 percent more in enforcement at the line comes to something like $3.4 billion a year.

Meanwhile, let's use $2,000 for the smuggling fee, and then add 5.6 percent or 2.5 percent to that figure. It comes to either an additional $112 or $50, depending on which study you prefer. And no one knows how much of the illicit traffic would be reduced by the extra $112 or $50.

So we have an annual additional public expenditure of $3.4 billion a year to drive up individual smuggling costs by $50 to $112!

It sounds a little like the imbalance between our dollar costs in Afghanistan and those of the Taliban. The dollar figures in the previous three paragraphs are my own, by the way; the study does not discuss the comparisons noted above.

Clearly there must be a better way of managing the border than simply increasing the number of Border Patrol agents.

One of the disappointments of this study was that it did not take into consideration the effectiveness, in terms of smuggling costs, of Operation Streamline which has apparently severely reduced the illegal alien incursions in the Border Patrol sectors where it has been utilized. To be fair, the study covered a much longer time period than the rather shorter life of Streamline.

In general terms, of course we should spend more money on immigration enforcement, but the knee-jerk reaction of various administrations over the last 20 years – more border agents and little else – needs to be overhauled completely.

I would be interested in others' reaction to this report and to my observations on it.

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