Sides work together, border gets tighter
House Republicans haven't made giant leaps toward fulfilling this pledge, an ambitious one to be sure. But they have made some measurable progress, and it's been through the most unlikely of means: bipartisan cooperation.
In researching a parallel pledge made by President Barack Obama, we noted that the administration has added more border patrol agents, fencing and detection technology to prevent border crossings. At the same time, the U.S. is apprehending far fewer people at the border. Last year the number of apprehensions near the border was 340,000 -- the lowest since 1971. That's in contrast to slightly more than 1 million apprehensions in 2005.
This could be because illegal immigration is down overall, so there are fewer people trying to cross into the United States. Experts say the struggling American economy, and the hit on the construction industry in particular, have dampened illegal immigration.
As for "operational control,” Homeland Security defines that as the level of border security provided through the number of border patrol agents, fencing and detection technology, such as heat sensors and drones.
A 2010 report on border security by the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan analytical arm of Congress, says that 44 percent of the 2,000-mile Southwest border is under operational control. Another 37 percent of the border is monitored, with a high chance of detecting crossings, but Border Patrol isn't able to respond because of obstacles such as lack of transportation access or difficult terrain. The report also mentions that the percentage under operational control had been increasing by an average of 126 miles per year between 2005 and 2010.
A more recent figure on operational control is not available because Homeland Security scrapped the measure in favor of a new index that the department said would debut in 2012. It hasn't yet. Some Republicans are tired of waiting for the new measure. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., introduced a bill in June calling for Homeland Security to reinstate its operational control reporting.
Other bills in Congress clamp down on specific aspects of border crossings. The Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2012 targets people who conspire to build subterranean tunnels used for smuggling people and drugs. That bill was introduced by a Democrat, Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas but passed with 233 Republican votes. It became law June 5, 2012.
The Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act of 2012, introduced by former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and co-sponsored by Republican Jeff Flake, broadens the definitions of aircraft used in smuggling operations. It passed the House unanimously and became law in February 2012.
The part of this pledge addressing border patrol efforts on federal lands has seen less progress. It stems from the restrictions on lands with "wilderness” and similar designations which make it harder for border agents to pursue illegal aliens.
"Wilderness lands are not patrolled very well, and Border Patrol has to go through a lot of hoops. So a lot of times they just don't even bother,” said Janice Kephart, an expert with the Center for Immigration Studies who has written about this topic. The center favors low levels of immigration.
She faults the Obama administration for not backing Border Patrol more strongly on the federal land conflict, but also Republicans in the House for acquiescing.
"The Republican leadership has been anything but agile and quick to conduct any oversight,” she said.
One bill pending in Congress gets closer to fulfilling this aspect of the pledge: the Conservation and Economic Growth Act. It includes language, folded in from another Republican bill, that prohibits the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture from "restricting activities on federal land located within 100 miles of an international land border … to prevent all unlawful entries into the United States.”
It also grants border agents access to federal lands to conduct activities such as construction and maintenance of roads and fences, use of patrol vehicles and aircraft, and operation of surveillance equipment and sensors.
It passed the House on June 19, 2012. The Senate has given it little attention, however an amendment that would have stripped the language strengthening border patrol activities failed.
An appropriations bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security directs the building of more cellular towers to assist border patrol agents. But it too is stalled in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
"Very little of this has actually come to pass because of the Senate. But I think you have to give credit to the House for trying,” said Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, which also advocates for low levels of legal immigration.
Establishing operational control of the border is a broad and somewhat vague goal. But we see substantial progress -- much of it as a result of rare bipartisan cooperation. More border agents and piecemeal legislation that targets specific methods of illegal immigration have materialized. The effort to enable greater patrolling activities on federal lands has not come to fruition. But all told, it's enough to rate this pledge a Compromise.
PolitiFact, Obameter: Secure the borders, Aug. 31, 2012
THOMAS, Border Security Enforcement Act of 2011, April 13, 2011
Interview with Mark Krikorian, executive director of Center for Immigration Studies, Sept. 14, 2012
Interview with Janice Kephart, Center for Immigration Studies, Sept. 14, 2012
THOMAS, Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2012, March 1, 2012
Roll call vote, Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2012, May 16, 2012
THOMAS, Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act of 2012, Jan. 23, 2012
Roll call vote, Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act of 2012, Jan. 25, 2012
Interview with Roy Beck, Numbers USA, Sept. 21, 2012
NumbersUSA.com, Border security bill tracker, accessed Sept. 21, 2012
THOMAS, Conservation and Economic Growth Act, July 18, 2011
THOMAS, Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2013, May 23, 2012