Freedomnomics

Article published Monday, June 10, 2013, at New York Post.

The real hole in the border bill

By John R. Lott, Jr.

As the Senate begins to debate immigration-overhaul legislation today, skeptics of the bill are focusing on the wrong problem.

Under the bill, illegal aliens already in the country could start obtaining “probationary” legalization once the Homeland Security Department submits a plan for catching 90 percent of the illegals trying to sneak in.

Critics focus on whether that legalization is truly “probationary.” The real issue is: How do we measure the rate of apprehending illegals?

Catching 90 percent of those trying to enter the country illegally sounds impressive. But, if measured as it is by the US Border Patrol, we’re almost already there, supposedly apprehending 86 percent of illegals.

But other measures of apprehension— ones that rely on surveys and recidivism of illegals — show something a little above a 50 percent apprehension rate.

Why the difference? The 90 percent figure, the so-called “known apprehension rate,” is based on “known” crossings. But lots of people sneak across the border without the Border Patrol ever noticing. Officials get the “known” crossings numbers from the results of various efforts, such as observing footprints in the sand and illegal aliens who are actually spotted successfully crossing the border.

This is highly prone to manipulation. Indeed, by having Border Patrol agents dolesswork, the measured apprehension rate can easily look better. For instance, if officers do tasks other than counting footprints in the sand, we’ll have few “known” crossings, so the“capture” rate will improve.

A superior measure would rely on a more high-tech approach. For example, from October to January this past year, Border Patrol officers used airborne radar to monitor crossings in the Sonora Desert. It demonstrated that only half (49 percent) of illegals were caught.

While radar may also miss some crossings, the measure should be less open to manipulation. Requiring a 90 percent apprehension rate using that technology would represent a real improvement in enforcement.

Of course, radar is hardly perfect. The illegals crossing the border then weren’t warned of the test in advance. If radar becomes a more regular tool of the Border Patrol, illegals will find ways to hide their crossings. For example, they will cross more often in areas where it’s harder to accurately operate the radar.

If immigration reform is to make any sense, we need to get this apprehension measure right. When illegals already in the United States are given a pathway to citizenship, we risk a new flood of people hoping to sneak in to ultimately get a similar deal. If so, we will yet again face the problem of millions living in the shadows.

John R. Lott Jr. is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of the recently released “At the Brink: Will Obama Push Us Over the Edge?”

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