New Republic

To liberals and immigration reform experts, this felt like an astonishingly bad political trade—and you can read all about that here. The CBO estimates, however, allow us to ask more directly, just what did the Senate commit to buying with that $25 billion? The CBO is not sure.

“There’s a huge amount of uncertainty written into what they put out today,” said Chris Wilson, an analyst with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “The report about the original [Gang of Eight] bill expected a net inflow reduction of 25 percent, and we can now expect a reduction of one-third to one-half? That’s somewhere between an 8 percent increase or 25 percent increase. That’s a huge range.”

What’s more, even those broadly-ranging estimates may be of little value. This is because the effect that immigration reform will have on the number of attempted border crossings is inevitably unclear. For instance, Wilson said, migrants who consider the U.S. their home tend to be undeterred by increased border security. In theory, immigration reform will allow some of them to apply for visas, and the CBO doesn’t appear to try to guess how many fewer crossing attempts there will be as a result.

But more broadly, an 8 to 25 percent increase in apprehensions, for $25 billion, at a point in time when attempted illegal border crossings are near a 40-year low—that’s just not a wise way to spend money.

“The return on investment in boots-on-the-ground border control is becoming less and less over time,” said Wilson. Patrols were already doubled, in both the ‘90s and ‘00s, so that today, “every additional border agent now will do less and less. If you look at a place with lower-level activity, like El Paso, the average Border Patrol agent last year made three-and-a-half apprehensions. Doubling patrols, in some areas, doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The upshot of all this is that the Senate bill commits billions to do—well, they don’t exactly know what. That’s disconcerting by itself, but more so when you examine the other, more tangible improvements at the border that money could have made. “If we said, theoretically, we have this pool of money available to spend on border security, where do we invest it?”—and after a June CBO report found that the Gang of Eight bill would produce huge deficit savings, that’s exactly what the bill’s architects did—“there are improvements we could make with much more measurable outcomes.”

Ports of entry, for example—where migrants from both countries are supposed to cross the border—are chronically short on customs agents; the U.S. could hire more of those. Wilson also pointed to SENTRI, a program that fast-tracks the entry process for people who pose little risk of committing a crime or overstaying their visas, is proven to reduce wait times at the border but is poorly advertised and cost-prohibitive for lower income migrants. It also has pervasive infrastructural problems; sometimes the lanes of traffic for SENTRI users don’t reach far back enough, forcing crossers cleared for quick entry to wait in the main line.