Despite massive increases in manpower, the U.S. Border Patrol is still intercepting only about 61 percent of would-be illegal immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to an audit that the investigative arm of Congress released Wednesday.
The findings, which for the first time show a broad estimate of how many illegal immigrants the Border Patrol fails to catch each year, emerge as pressure builds on Congress to move past border security and begin to grant legal status to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
The Government Accountability Office report found that an estimated 208,813 illegal immigrants escaped capture along the nearly 2,000-mile border. Slightly more than half of them turned back to Mexico, and the others proceeded deeper into the U.S., the report said.
The report also said that the Obama administration has gone more than two years without having an effective yardstick for measuring border security, meaning there is no good way to evaluate the job the Border Patrol is doing.
“The bottom line is we are far from having operational control of our borders, particularly the southwest border, and as the GAO reports, there still are no metrics to quantify progress,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, Texas Republican. “Meanwhile, the threat from groups ranging from Islamist extremists to drug cartels continues to grow.”
Border security has been a chief focus of immigration efforts since 2007, when the last major immigration reform bill failed in Congress. After that failure, Republicans said voters wanted the border secured before any legalization took place, and President Bush poured resources into the Border Patrol.
According to the GAO, the number of illegal border crossings has dropped, as has the number of illegal immigrants the Border Patrol apprehends. It’s unclear how much of that is a result of stricter enforcement and how much is because of the slumping U.S. economy and changes in Mexico.
But the GAO report painted a picture of an agency struggling to come up with ways to measure its effectiveness.
Two years ago, the Obama administration ditched the “operational control” yardstick that the Bush administration developed. The yardstick showed that just a fraction of the border was effectively sealed.
The Homeland Security Department, which oversees the Border Patrol, said in its official response to the GAO that it is trying to come up with a new yardstick by the end of November — which would mean it will have gone three years without a measure of border enforcement effectiveness.
“[The Department of Homeland Security] fully appreciates the importance and need of having measurable goals to assess progress in the area of border security,” Jim H. Crumpacker, Homeland Security’s liaison to GAO, said in the department’s response.
He said the Border Patrol has added some tools to try to track repeat illegal crossers, and uses internal measures to track progress.
The Border Patrol always has been able to say how many illegal immigrants it captured, but until recently it had little idea of how many crossed without being apprehended.
Now, with the boost in radar, sensors and other tools, the Border Patrol can estimate that number — and that gets it closer to coming up with a good yardstick of effectiveness, said Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service who just completed a review of immigration enforcement for the Migration Policy Institute.
She said that its particularly true in the Tucson, Ariz., sector, where the infrastructure has been built and where the Border Patrol is trying to figure out a measure of “baseline flows.”
“What Tucson is trying to determine, and what some other parts of the border think that they’re at, is what’s their baseline flow — in other words, what do they have to recognize, all other things being equal, is the normal course of illegal crossing activity,” Ms. Meissner said.
She said It’s a difficult balance, since not all crossings are the same.
Some likely represent the same person trying to cross multiple times, while others are high-risk crossers from countries that pose a risk of terrorism. The Border Patrol is trying to grapple with all of those factors in coming up with a new measure of security.
In 2011, the GAO said, the Border Patrol apprehended 327,118 illegal border crossers, while it estimates another 208,813 got away. Of those, 85,827 escaped into the U.S. and the rest turned back.
Auditors cautioned that the numbers are not exact because they often depend on judgment calls about whether someone was deemed to have turned back based on tracks or other signs.
The Border Patrol is still working on numbers for 2012.
But the numbers do show progress from 2006, when the Border Patrol apprehended 1.1 million, while more than 900,000 got away.
President Obama has said he will write immigration legislation this year and submit it to Congress. The legislation is expected to contain a legalization program for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
But Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the numbers should be a warning to lawmakers who say the border is secure enough to tackle legalization.
“This doesn’t count the northern border, the coastline, perhaps an equal number of people who overstay temporary visas in the United States,” he said. “The question is, ‘Is that control?’ Most people would say if several hundred thousand people successfully sneak across one of your borders, you’ve still got a serious problem.”
Among other findings, GAO investigators said the rate of repeat offenders has dropped from about 42 percent in 2008 to 36 percent in 2011.
Auditors also said that drug seizures were up 83 percent in 2011 compared with 2006. More than a quarter of that drug activity happened in the Tucson sector.