As Congress weighs whether to pin immigration reform on reaching a threshold of border security, the measure most often cited would call on the Department of Homeland Security to stop 90 percent of illegal border crossings. Doing that means figuring out how to persuade people like Flores not to try again and stopping others headed for el norte from slipping over the border.
That, in turn, hinges on solid answers to such questions as: How many people actually get through? Where do they get across? When they’re caught, do they give up or keep trying until they make it?
Homeland Security officials don’t fully know the answers to those questions. And the reason, say leading migration researchers, is that DHS officials don’t want to know, and don’t want the public to know, either.
“There is zero interest in that kind of analysis among DHS’ leadership,” said economist Bryan Roberts, who served as the agency’s assistant director of the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation until 2010. “There was no interest when I was there, and there still isn’t any.” ...
Roberts and several other researchers said that the DHS doesn’t have the answers because it doesn’t jointly analyze data from the Border Patrol, which works between ports of entry; Customs and Border Protection, which works at ports of entry; and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which works across the interior of the country.
Not looking at the big picture makes it harder for the DHS to figure out whether, say, to build more fences or focus on interior enforcement, the researchers said. And there’s little pressure on the DHS to work with outside experts or better analyze its data to figure out what has worked and what hasn’t.
... The immigration bill passed last month by the Senate, now languishing as the House weighs its own measures, would evaluate border security using an “effectiveness rate” based on data that the DHS and its agencies won’t release to the public. The bill would provide more than $46 billion and nearly double the size of the Border Patrol by adding 19,200 agents along the Mexico border over the next eight years, to help the agency reach a 90 percent effectiveness rate.
That rate is meant to show how effectively the Border Patrol prevents illegal crossings. To estimate the number of illegal crossings, the Border Patrol adds up three figures: apprehensions; “turn-backs” (people spotted starting to cross who turned back to avoid getting caught); and “got-aways” (people detected by agents or surveillance equipment but not caught). A 90 percent effectiveness rate means nine apprehensions and turn-backs for each got-away.
The Border Patrol doesn’t release information on turn-backs or got-aways to the public, just apprehensions; and it admits that the effectiveness rate is a flawed yardstick. Among other gaps, it can’t account for crossers whom agents don’t see. And because the Border Patrol works between ports of entry, its rate doesn’t include those who cross illegally at ports of entry, either hidden in vehicles or using false documents.
The Government Accountability Office, in a report last December, published previously unreleased data showing that the Border Patrol’s effectiveness rate for fiscal 2011 was 84 percent. By that yardstick, getting to 90 percent isn’t a huge stretch, noted former DHS official Roberts.
The Border Patrol hasn’t released turn-back or got-away data for fiscal 2012, and hadn’t responded by deadline to The Republic’s request for that information.
Outside researchers say efforts to come up with a better approach to accounting for undocumented migration run smack into Homeland Security’s unwillingness to let academics analyze its data.
Last year, for example, a panel of leading statisticians, economists and demographers at the National Academy of Sciences conducted a study on illegal immigration at the request of Homeland Security. But the DHS refused to provide the panel key apprehension data, such as coded fingerprint figures that would identify precise numbers of repeat crossers. The DHS had demanded that researchers promise not to disclose that data to the public. Panel members said keeping the information classified would impair the quality of their work; they declined, and didn’t get the data.
That study, which included data from Mexican governmental sources and previous U.S. academic studies, suggested that about three-quarters of those who decide to cross keep trying until they make it. Other outside studies have found 85 or even 90 percent make it.
“Almost everybody who really tries eventually gets in,” said Jeffrey Passel, a member of the panel and a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C., that studies the U.S. Hispanic population.
The National Academy of Sciences study essentially was ignored in presentations that the DHS gave to the Senate earlier this year during the immigration-reform debate, said the study’s panel members.
They said the DHS was not eager to draw attention to the study’s findings even though it paid for the report. “In a sense, it throws a monkey wrench into the discussions on immigration. I’m totally for immigration reform, but this report would make Republicans giddy and Democrats go, ‘Oh, crap,’ ” said Alicia Carriquiry, a professor of statistics at Iowa State University and a co-author of the study.