By Chad Selweski
U.S. Rep. Candice Miller may have succeeded this week in calling for an objective measurement that determines how successfully the Department of Homeland Security has blocked illegal border crossings at the Southwest boundary with Mexico.
With bipartisan immigration reform legislation brewing in Congress, lawmakers who believe the border is "more secure than ever" -- as DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano declared earlier this month -- are calling for a better way to measure its degree of control along the border.
At Tuesday hearing held by the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, which Miller chairs, the U.S. Border Patrol agreed that 90 percent effectiveness in stopping illegal immigrants and drug shipments will be their goal in high traffic areas along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Border security agencies must be able to deter, or apprehend, the overwhelming majority who cross the border illegally and possess the ability to interdict drugs and other contraband destined for American cities," said Miller, a Harrison Township Republican.
Many of Miller's colleagues on the subcommittee, Republicans and Democrats, agreed that Napolitano's assurances about much greater manpower and surveillance technology is "not a substitute for cold, hard and verifiable facts."
A 2011 Government Accountability Office report said that border security was in tatters, with less than half the Southwest border meeting the DHS' own standard of full "operational control." The department responded by declaring "operational control" an archaic term and dropped it as an effectiveness standard.
So far, Congress has yet to see the so-called Border Condition Index that the DHS promised as a more realistic measurement.
According to Congressional Quarterly, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, to which Miller's subcommittee reports, said during the hearing that he believes DHS has made "unprecedented efforts" to secure the border in recent years. But, he added, it still needs to quantify that success.
"We need a workable metric or set of metrics that offer an accurate assessment of security of all of our nation's borders, both at and between the ports of entry," Thompson said.
Kevin McAleenan, acting assistant commissioner of the Office of Field Operations within Customs and Border Protection, warned lawmakers against calling for a single measure to be applied across all sectors of the border, regardless of the amount of illegal crossing attempts.
An immigration policy specialist at the Congressional Research Service said that simplistic metrics such as apprehension rates do not answer the question of how many people are crossing the border illegally and not being caught.
"There's broad consensus among all sides of the immigration debate that we should secure the Southwest border, but no consensus on what that means and how to recognize a secure border when we see it," said Marc Rosenblum.
Miller said that DHS must compile a comprehensive plan to measure the outcomes of border security.
"All of the Department of Homeland Security's components must be held accountable for success or failure -- progress or not," the congresswoman said. "They must show the American people that the resources, personnel, and technology being put into the field at and along our borders are being used effectively and give us the security we need."