Much of the discourse in recent days about illegal immigration – from Washington to Arizona – gives the impression that the federal government has been missing in action when it comes to border enforcement.
"Decades of federal inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation," Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer declared when she signed Senate Bill 1070, the state's controversial law intended to push illegal immigrants back across the border.
"Guarding the borders of our great nation is a federal responsibility that this administration is ignoring," opined Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, has pointed accusingly to "the federal government's failure to carry out its responsibilities." President Obama said almost the same thing when talked about "the failure of the federal government to act responsibly" on the border.
In fact, the federal government has hardly been sitting on its hands doing nothing. Over the past 18 years, under three presidents, there has been a massive, and steady, increase in border controls and expenditures.
Since 1992, spending on immigration enforcement has risen from just under $2 billion to over $20 billion today, according to Wayne Cornelius, co-director of the Center of Expertise on Migration and Health at UC San Diego.
The number of Border Patrol agents has quintupled since the border buildup began in the early 1990s – from 3,555 agents in 1992 to more than 20,000 in 2009.
The number of line-watch hours spent by Border Patrol agents has increased from some 200,000 hours in 1994 to over 800,000 a decade later.
The Border Patrol is reinforced by thousands of other federal agents from agencies such as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Drug Enforcement Agency, who also have responsibility for border enforcement activities. They're backed up by an array of sophisticated, and expensive, electronic surveillance tools, including remotely piloted aircraft known as Predators.
None of this comes cheap. The Obama administration requested $11.4 billion for the current fiscal year the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and its 58,105 employees, and $5.7 billion for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its 20,134 employees.
What has been missing from much of the debate is not so much whether the federal government is doing anything on the border – because it clearly is – but what border enforcement policies would be more effective.
It's clear that current federal policies have had a substantial impact. During the 2008-09 fiscal year, apprehensions on the border dropped to 723,840 – less than a half of the 2001 peak figure of 1,676,000 apprehensions. The decline suggests that as personnel and equipment on the border have been beefed up, fewer people are succeeding in entering the United States, or attempting to do so.
Even in Arizona, the number of apprehensions dropped almost in half, from a peak of 616,316 apprehensions on the Tucson sector in 2000 to 317,709 in 2008.
But the reality is that half of all apprehensions on the entire U.S.-Mexico border are still taking place in Arizona – which has been a major factor in generating public support for Arizona's controversial law.
The federal government could continue to add thousands of Border Patrol agents, more fences, and other personnel and surveillance equipment, as Arizona Sens. Jon Kyl and McCain have called for in their 10 point plan. But this will add billions of dollars to the federal deficit – the very deficit that many of those who support tougher controls on the border are demanding be reduced.
There is also no guarantee additional multibillion-dollar expenditures would have their intended outcome to stop illegal immigration. They haven't so far.