Going forward, a central question in the immigration-reform debate will be what more can – and should – be done. In many ways, answering that question depends on understanding what has been done so far.
While the massive rise in illegal immigration throughout the 1980s and '90s brought some increases in manpower and technology to the Southwest border, 9/11 started a sea change.
In 2003, the size of the border patrol stood at 10,717 agents. In 2012, the number totaled 21,394, with 18,516 stationed along a Southwest border reinforced with state-of-the-art technology that includes ground sensors, hand-held thermal-imaging equipment, surveillance cameras, and predator drones. During that time, the border patrol budget increased from $1.4 billion to $3.5 billion, according to agency data.
Those increases have been supplemented by other initiatives. In 2006, Bush signed the Secure Fence Act, which authorized 700 miles of fencing – as well as infrastructure such as vehicle barriers, roads, and checkpoints – along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. The same year, the Bush administration endorsed plans for a "virtual fence" of surveillance equipment to run almost the entire length of the border.
The Secure Fence Act aimed to achieve "operational control" over the entire border, defining the phrase as "the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband."
That, experts say, was an unrealistic expectation. There will never be a secure border by that definition, says Donald Kerwin, executive director at the Center for Migration Studies, which defends migrants' rights.