Many ‘boots’ lined up on border, but record de­bat­able

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Angie Drob­nic Holan

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama gave a lengthy speech this week on the need for im­mi­gra­tion re­form, mak­ing a case to change the way the law han­dles im­mi­grants.

Among his gen­eral points: Govern­ment needs to se­cure the bor­ders but also needs to re­duce red tape and back­logs for le­gal im­mi­grants. Busi­nesses need to obey laws that for­bid hir­ing il­le­gal im­mi­grants. And il­le­gal im­mi­grants need to reg­is­ter, pay taxes and fines, and learn English.

Obama also said govern­ment ef­forts to se­cure the border are record-set­ting.

“Govern­ment has a thresh­old re­spon­si­bil­ity to se­cure our bor­ders,” he said. “That’s why I di­rected my sec­re­tary of home­land se­cu­rity, Janet Napoli­tano — a for­mer border gover­nor — to im­prove our en­force­ment pol­icy with­out hav­ing to wait for a new law. To­day, we have more boots on the ground near the South­west border than at any time in our his­tory. Let me re­peat that: We have more boots on the ground on the South­west border than at any time in our his­tory.”

Con­tin­ued from A

Just be­cause some­one re­peats some­thing doesn’t mean it’s true. We de­cided to check it out.

Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity, about 21,000 agents are charged with mon­i­tor­ing the coun­try’s bor­ders. Most are as­signed to the South­west border — that is, the land border stretch­ing from Cal­i­for­nia to Texas.

The num­ber as­signed to the area has in­creased dra­mat­i­cally in re­cent years. U.S. Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion, a di­vi­sion of Home­land Se­cu­rity, told us that 17,057 agents are now as­signed to that border, up from 6,315 in 1997.

Sep­a­rately, the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice has re­ported that the num­ber of border agents has gone up ev­ery year since 1992.

The de­ter­rent ef­fect of ad­di­tional agents, though, has been hard to gauge, the re­search ser­vice notes. For sev­eral years, from 1994 to 2000, ap­pre­hen­sions of il­le­gal im­mi­grants near the Mex­i­can border in­creased de­spite the surg­ing num­ber of agents. In sub­se­quent years, ap­pre­hen­sions de­creased, seem­ingly along with down­turns in the U.S. econ­omy, the ser­vice says. In 2009, ap­pre­hen­sions reached a 17-year low.

We checked in with groups that fa­vor low lev­els of im­mi­gra­tion to see what they thought of Obama’s “boots” state­ment. They said the fact was ac­cu­rate, while point­ing out that Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush was re­spon­si­ble for adding many agents now on the ground.

Steven Ca­marota of the Cen­ter for Im­mi­gra­tion Stud­ies said the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion could do more on en­force­ment in the coun­try’s in­te­rior, such as stricter checks on em­ploy­ees’ im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus or a new en­try-exit mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem for peo­ple here on tem­po­rary visas.

“Border pa­trol with­out in­te­rior en­force­ment is like lock­ing your front door and leav­ing the back door open,” he said.

We thought we were done, but then the his­tory buffs at PolitiFact brought up the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can War of 1846 and the less re­mem­bered Mex­i­can Ex­pe­di­tion of 1916. Should those mil­i­tary ac­tions count as “boots on the ground on the South­west border”?

We de­cided the Mex­i­canAmer­i­can War should not count — this was a war that hap­pened af­ter the United States an­nexed Texas in 1845; hence it was more a bat­tle to de­fine the border than to de­fend it.

The Mex­i­can Ex­pe­di­tion was a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, though. Those events oc­curred dur­ing the Mex­i­can Revo­lu­tion, when Pan­cho Villa launched a sur­prise at­tack in­side the United States at Colum­bus, N.M. His­tory books say Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son sent be­tween 75,000 and 150,000 troops to the border in 1916.

His­to­ri­ans we asked, though, said the Mex­i­can Ex­pe­di­tion isn’t di­rectly com­pa­ra­ble with to­day’s border sit­u­a­tion.

“Dur­ing the Mex­i­can in­sur­rec­tion, Pan­cho Villa raided into U.S. ter­ri­tory. It was, then, not about at­tempts by Mex­i­cans to get into the U.S. in­di­vid­u­ally for var­i­ous per­sonal rea­sons, or drug smug­gling, etc.,” Richard H. Kohn, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of North Carolina, said in an e-mail in­ter­view.

An­other his­to­rian, Paul

PolitiFact Texas looks at the rate of child hunger, B1 Christo­pher An­der­son of Clem­son Uni­ver­sity, agreed that con­cerns with stop­ping im­mi­gra­tion are very dif­fer­ent now from the wor­ries of the early 1900s.

“The U.S. in­volve­ment on the border and in Mex­ico from 1913 to 1917 was tied pri­mar­ily to ques­tions of diplo­macy, im- pe­ri­al­ism, and Mex­i­can sovereignty,” he said via e-mail.

Obama’s state­ment on border agents is sound in the con­text of to­day’s de­bate.

Still, there have been times when the United States sent troops to the border, in­clud­ing many more peo­ple than are there to guard the border to­day.

We want to al­low for that com­pli­cated his­tory, so we rate Obama’s state­ment Mostly True.

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