Crime and Punishment at the U.S. Border


During Monday night’s South Carolina debate, Texas governor Rick Perry argued that border crossings have reached a 40-year low because the high-unemployment Obama economy has made America a less attractive destination for illegal aliens.  An Associated Press story this morning acknowledges Perry’s point, anticipating that the Border Patrol “may be challenged when the U.S. economy recovers, creating jobs that may encourage more illegal crossings.”  The AP also gives much credit to improved border security, and more serious consequences for repeat violators:

Years of enormous growth at [the U.S. Border Patrol] in terms of staff and technology have helped drive down apprehensions of migrants to 40-year lows.

The number of agents since 2004 has more than doubled to 21,000. The Border Patrol has blanketed one-third of the border with fences and other physical barriers, and spent heavily on cameras, sensors and other gizmos. Major advances in fingerprinting technology have vastly improved intelligence on border-crossers. In the 2011 fiscal year, border agents made 327,577 apprehensions on the Mexican border, down 80 percent from more than 1.6 million in 2000. It was the Border Patrol’s slowest year since 1971.

It’s a far cry from just a few years ago. Older agents remember being so overmatched that they powerlessly watched migrants cross illegally, minutes after catching them and dropping them off at the nearest border crossing. Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher, who joined the Border Patrol in 1987, recalls apprehending the same migrant 10 times in his eight-hour shift as a young agent.

Part of the Border Patrol strategy involves moving away from catch-and-release policies to more severe punishment for repeat offenders:

Consequences can be severe for detained migrants and expensive to American taxpayers, including felony prosecution or being taken to an unfamiliar border city hundreds of miles away to be sent back to Mexico. One tool used during summers in Arizona involves flying migrants to Mexico City, where they get one-way bus tickets to their hometowns. Another releases them to Mexican authorities for prosecution south of the border. One puts them on buses to return to Mexico in another border city that may be hundreds of miles away.

In the past, migrants caught in Douglas, Ariz., were given a bologna sandwich and orange juice before being taken back to Mexico at the same location on the same afternoon, Fisher said. Now, they may spend the night at an immigration detention facility near Phoenix and eventually return to Mexico through Del Rio, Texas, more than 800 miles away.

Those migrants are effectively cut off from the smugglers who helped them cross the border, whose typical fees have skyrocketed to between $3,200 and $3,500 and are increasingly demanding payment upfront instead of after crossing, [Border Patrol Chief Mike] Fisher said. At minimum, they will have to wait longer to try again as they raise money to pay another smuggler.

“What used to be hours and days is now being translated into days and weeks,” said Fisher.

This is all quite a contrast to the portrait of a hopelessly porous border that has been painted for us by Washington elites.  It’s been conventional wisdom for decades that securing the border was nearly impossible, and physical barriers were a ridiculous waste of taxpayer funding. 

It also runs counter to the fashionable view of low-level crime as an involuntary behavior of desperate people, helplessly herded along by economic factors beyond their control.  Instead, crime is often a rational decision in which both consequences and reward are measured.  Perry’s point about reduced incentive for border crossing combines with these tougher security measures (which Perry is also a strong proponent of) to change the calculations of potential border violators.  

Moving away from catch-and-release policies also prompts more of these violators to think of themselves as criminals, which has an often-overlooked deterrence value.  Non-violent first offenders have a different ethical sensibility than hardened criminals.  When unsuccessful border penetration attempts are treated like a game, repeat offenses are more likely. 

It’s also interesting to see the economics of border violation changing.  If “coyote” smugglers are charging big bucks up front to keep their business model afloat, many of their customers will find themselves unable to afford second and third attempts… which will in turn reduce demand for their services and drive prices up, or drive the coyotes out of business.

The new strategy has produced dramatic results in some places, including an 80 percent reduction in border apprehensions over the past ten years in Tucson, but more resources are needed to implement it other areas:

Fisher acknowledged that the new strategy depends heavily on other agencies. Federal prosecutors must agree to take his cases. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement must have enough beds in its detention facilities.

In Southern California, the U.S. attorney’s office doesn’t participate in a widely used Border Patrol program that prosecutes even first-time offenders with misdemeanors punishable by up to six months in custody, opting instead to pursue only felonies for the most egregious cases, including serial border-crossers and criminals.

Laura Duffy, the U.S. attorney in San Diego, said limited resources, including lack of jail space, force her to make choices.

“It has not been the practice (in California) to target and prosecute economic migrants who have no criminal histories, who are coming in to the United States to work or to be with their families,” Duffy said. “We do target the individuals who are smuggling those individuals.”

The long-term benefits make border security a smart investment.  Many of the seemingly intractable problems posed by America’s illegal population would not exist if smart and effective border security had been put in place long ago… say, around the time of the last massive amnesty program.  It’s funny how this guaranteed winner is one of the few “investments” our investment-happy Big Government never wants to make.