Jan Brewer, Other Arizona Officials Weigh Wider Impact of New Border Strategy

Gov. Jan Brewer and other immigration hawks are not sure how the Border Patrol’s new emphasis on risk assessment will affect border security. By Terry Greene Sterling.

Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post-Getty Images

In the wake of record deportations by the Obama administration and a 40-year low in border apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants, the chief gatekeeper of the nation’s borders irked immigration hawks when he announced that border security will soon be measured by real “threats and vulnerabilities.”

Testifying in Washington on Tuesday before the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, Michael Fisher, the chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, announced a new four-year border strategy that determines border security in a new way—via risk assessment.

Previously, the agency determined border security by measuring “resources” that signaled “operational control”—boots on the ground, for instance, or lineal feet of border fence or technology. Absent sufficient “resources” to blanket the nation’s northern, southern, and coastal borders, only 13 percent of the border was considered “secure.” Still, immigration hawks have long vowed they will support immigration reform only after the nation’s borders are completely “secured”—a virtual impossibility under the Border Patrol’s traditional definition.

No border in the world “is 100 percent migrant proof,” said Rodolfo Espino, an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University. For hardliners to demand a “secure border” before moving forward on immigration reform is “shifting the goal post so far back” that immigration reform “can’t happen,” he said.

Defining border security by assessing risks could weaken the secure-the-borders-first arguments proffered by immigration hawks and could pave the way for national immigration reform, said Ezequiel Hernandez, an immigration lawyer who has offices in Arizona and Colorado.

Fisher’s announcement took Arizona by surprise. Gov. Jan Brewer, an immigration hardliner who was taken to task for falsely claiming “beheadings” occurred in the Arizona desert, was still digesting the Border Patrol’s new strategy. “I don’t have any insta-analysis for you on this,” the governor’s spokesman, Matthew Benson, wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “We’re still reviewing what these changes mean for border security.”

The Border Patrol’s 32-page plan has yet to be made public, and Fisher testified only in broad terms. (Border Patrol officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.) But the Associated Press reported Tuesday that the new strategy includes “ferreting” corrupt agents and attempting to curb a “revolving door” of sending migrants back to Mexico unpunished.

That would mean detaining migrants who were formerly caught and released at the border, which could be a boon to Corrections Corporation of America, which contracts with federal officials to transport and house their immigrant charges, Hernandez, the immigration lawyer, said.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, whose county sits on the border, told The Daily Beast he welcomes “evolving strategies” in border enforcement. “I support the Border Patrol as long as they use common sense and compassion,” he said, and “focus on criminal aliens.”

Larry Dever, the sheriff of Cochise County, Ariz., a border county neighboring Estrada’s turf, was busy fighting wildfires on Tuesday. A strong supporter of Arizona’s immigration law, SB1070, and an occasional critic of the Border Patrol for trumpeting its low apprehension numbers while his constituents continued to complain about being harassed by migrants, Dever wrote in an email to The Daily Beast: “Isn't it interesting that Customs and Border Patrol is just now getting around to announcing a strategy, after 12 years of proclaiming victory? That said, Fish [Fisher] is a great guy with grand ideas and I am happy to say that I think Border Patrol is making progress under his leadership. I have not been privileged to see their new policy, but policy is the problem. That message was heard and discussed loudly and clearly in SCOTUS last week.” (Dever flew to Washington to attend the recent Supreme Court hearing on SB1070.)

The Border Patrol’s stated goal of enhancing border security while “facilitating the flow of lawful people and goods entering the United States” is good news for Erik Lee, the associate director of North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University. He says some sections of the Border Patrol are “overstaffed” while a different Department of Homeland Security agency, the Office of Field Operations, which operates the official border “ports of entry,” is understaffed. The result: trucks full of vegetables and cars full of tourists wait for hours to cross into the United States. The long queues hamper trade and tourism with Mexico, the nation’s “third most overall significant trading partner behind China and Canada” and the “second largest export market after Canada,” Lee said.

But those harried and unnoticed port inspectors will likely go without more funding, since this is an election year and the immigration debate still sizzles.

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With that political reality in mind, House Republicans may sponsor legislation squelching the Border Patrol’s new plan, a possibility that was hinted at during Tuesday’s hearing by Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat.

“If it were a Republican White House,” sums up Espino, the Arizona political science professor, there’d likely be “more support” for the Border Patrol’s new risk-based strategy.