Homeland Security revises border security strategy

Gregory Bull/AP file photo

Officials will use intelligence to target high-risk areas.

The Homeland Security Department is shifting away from a strategy of deploying more guards and technology to control U.S. borders to using intelligence to target areas of the border that present the greatest threats, a top department official said Tuesday. In addition, DHS is changing the way it measures the effectiveness of that plan.

Department officials won’t be able to assess the new strategy’s success until 2013, Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher said Tuesday at a hearing before a House Homeland Security Committee’s border security panel.

DHS officials have long considered apprehensions, such as captures and arrests, a measure of success, but going forward, they also will consider additional factors such as community well-being and the number of repeat offenders crossing the border illegally. To achieve the highest levels of security under the new strategy, department officials will no longer deploy surveillance technology and drones evenly along U.S. borders, but instead will station more of those tools in areas of greatest risk, as determined by intelligence.

The benchmarks for success under the old plan -- the 2004 National Border Patrol Strategy -- included certain levels of “operational control,” which was defined by the amount of technology and personnel in place to stop illegal activity. But the term was not widely understood or applied consistently. In 2010, DHS reported achieving operational control of 1,107 miles of the 8,607 miles of northern, southwest and coastal borders, but an audit by the Government Accountability Office found the northern and coastal borders were especially vulnerable because of limited resources and poor access.

“Everyone had a different understanding of what operational control was,” Fisher told lawmakers.

In 2010, Homeland Security abandoned operational control as a performance metric and instead opted to gauge security based on the number of illegal border-crossers taken into custody. But studies have shown the number of apprehensions does not correlate to the effectiveness of homeland security because officials did not compare those statistics to crime rates along the border.

Although apprehensions along the southwest border have dropped 53 percent since 2008, Fisher acknowledged the limits of such data without context. “We’re taking a look at those apprehensions only as a starting point” to look at other dynamics, such as recidivism, and “not just look at whether apprehensions went up or down,” Fisher said. “Apprehensions in and of themselves don’t tell us anything about the extent to which we’re being successful and or levels of border security,” he added.

He noted seizures of money, drugs and weapons have increased recently. From 2009 through 2011, the department confiscated 74 percent more currency, 41 percent more drugs and 159 percent more weapons than it did from 2006 through 2008.

Government analysts at Tuesday’s hearing were optimistic the new benchmarks will be more relevant, but said it is too early to tell because they have not been used yet.

The “move more toward outcome-oriented measures” will help DHS gain a sense of how effective the Border Patrol is, said Rebecca Gambler, GAO’s acting director of homeland security and justice issues.

Marc R. Rosenblum, a specialist in immigration policy at the Congressional Research Service, said tallying unique apprehensions should offer more insight into the problem of repeat offenders.