SAN DIEGO — Kathy Gomez estimates that U.S. Border Patrol agents catch 75 percent of the migrants who try to run through the strawberry fields at her farm near the border with Tijuana. Farther east, Miguel Diaz thinks the number hits 90 percent at his junkyard near the base of Otay Mountain.
But in the San Diego backcountry, rancher Bob Maupin says that, of the migrants who skirt his 250 acres, only 10 percent get arrested.
Across the Southwest, the rate at which the Border Patrol stops illegal crossings has long been the stuff of coffee-shop speculation. In Washington, an effort to make those numbers precise is about to become the thread on which the fate of millions will hang.
Under a bipartisan immigration bill being debated in the Senate, a 13-year path to citizenship for most of the country’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants would depend on whether the Border Patrol can achieve 90 percent effectiveness.
Supporters say they have confidence such a goal can be measured and reached over the next decade. Border residents, some experts and longtime patrol agents are skeptical. How, they ask, can anyone reliably estimate the number of immigrants that agents don’t catch? Although the bill would provide billions of dollars for improved border security, tying immigration reform to a border security “trigger” of 90 percent almost invites manipulation, say critics like Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union for patrol agents.
“How are they going to measure effectiveness?” Moran asked. “It will put pressure on Border Patrol management to fudge the number in order to fit political purposes.”
The proposed Senate bill would give the government an additional $4.5 billion to add patrol agents, fences, surveillance drones, advanced radar and other surveillance equipment in the first five years after the legislation passes.
The Border Patrol would have five years to demonstrate it can capture or turn back 90 percent of people illegally attempting to cross the most trafficked areas of the Southwest border. If that deadline isn’t met, a commission made up of governors and law enforcement leaders from border states would be created and given an additional $2 billion and another five years to fill the remaining gaps.
Measuring the effectiveness of the $3.5 billion-a-year Border Patrol has long proved difficult. Several years ago, the agency rated its performance by assessing how much of the border was under “operational control.” Officials determined “control” by measuring the agency’s ability to detect, respond to and interdict migrants crossing the border.
By 2010, the agency reported that 44 percent of the border was under operational control. Critics pounced on the agency’s tacit admission that 56 percent of the border was not under control and said the agency was underperforming.
The agency has since discontinued the use of operational control as its yardstick and now cites migrant arrest totals as a measure of performance. But a 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the use of arrest totals did not measure actual results and could lead to reduced oversight and accountability. One problem is that border agents lack a reliable way of counting the number of people they don’t see. To remedy that, senators have pointed to a new radar system developed to detect insurgents planting bombs in Afghanistan as one piece of technology that could help track people crossing unlawfully into the United States.
Called Vader, the drone-mounted radar has been tested over a 150-square-mile patch of Arizona desert for more than a year.
Homeland Security officials are also developing a new set of measurements called the “border condition index.” Officials say the index will track trends in apprehensions, including the percentage of criminals stopped, where migrants are coming from and whether people are trying to cross again and again.
But the officials have emphasized that the purpose of the new index is to help them decide where to send more agents, not to give an overall score for border security.