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