Will the Border Ever Be Secure Enough for Immigration Hawks?

El Paso is the safest city in the U.S., the Border Patrol is bigger than ever, and illegal crossings have reached a 40-year low -- among other surprising facts.

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Reuters

Border security could be the issue that kills immigration reform. And yet, by most measures, the U.S.-Mexico border has never been safer.

The bipartisan group of U.S. senators seeking comprehensive immigration reform have proposed a "trigger" mechanism, whereby a path to citizenship would be contingent on increased border security. President Obama and liberals have not endorsed the idea, although the president is "committed to increasing our border security further," according to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

Disagreement over the trigger is the largest current discrepancy between the Senate and White House versions of immigration reform. It could cause the whole thing to fall apart. Yet the idea -- expressed by both sides -- that the border needs more security may be the biggest myth of the immigration debate, according to Rep. Beto O'Rourke.

A newly elected Democrat, O'Rourke represents El Paso, Texas, the border city that shares a street grid -- and 11 border inspection stations -- with the Mexican city of Juarez. El Paso also has the lowest crime rate of any large U.S. city. (The second-safest large city? It's on the border, too: San Diego.)

The common assumption, O'Rourke told me recently, "is that the border is not secure." In fact, by almost any measure -- crime, unauthorized border crossings, resources devoted to border patrol -- the U.S.-Mexico border has never been more secure than it is now.

The problem for the immigration debate is that those who claim we need more border security are rarely called upon to prove it. No one has proposed a set of concrete standards; rather, some are calling for a subjective evaluation to be made by border-state governors, some of whom have political incentives to exaggerate the threat -- and track records of doing so.

Meanwhile, there's a downside to the increasingly militarized border, O'Rourke claims. In human terms, it results in more deaths. In fiscal terms, it wastes federal-government dollars that could be put to better use. And in economic terms, long wait times at the border -- due in part to the zealous but not very effective pursuit of contraband -- stifle the flow of trade that is a major driver of the U.S. economy.

Does the Mexican border need more security? Here are a few facts to consider.

* American border regions are not crime-ridden. El Paso and San Diego were America's two safest cities with populations over 500,000 in 2012, according to CQ Press. In 2010, at the height of Mexico's drug war, Juarez recorded more than 3,000 murders; El Paso had just five. On average, violent crime rates in U.S. border regions are lower than those of the rest of the nation.

* Terrorists are not coming over the border. There's never been a reported case of a terrorist attack in the U.S. that involved someone coming across the Mexican border. A congressional subcommittee report on the threat of cross-border terrorism cited unsubstantiated claims and three specific cases, including a Tunisian cleric caught hiding in the trunk of a car in San Diego who was not accused of involvement in any terrorist activity. The other two also were not linked to specific terrorist plots.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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