Border Reality Check

In the national conversation around immigration and the border region, previous administrations have taken an enforcement-only approach and demanded more border walls, more agents, more detention beds, and more military interventions in the name of ‘security’. These misguided policies have instead eroded the rights of border communities and increased abuse and impunity among border agents. The call for more walls and agents is not evidence-based and does not take into account the buildup of border enforcement that has already taken place and cost us billions of dollars.

Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on...


We’ve Invested Billions in Border Enforcement

We’ve created a spending monster that is gobbling up taxpayer dollars that could be better spent elsewhere, like on health care, education, and infrastructure. Congress continues to channel more U.S. taxpayer dollars to immigration enforcement agencies (more than $28.6 billion now) than all other enforcement agencies combined, including the FBI, DEA, ATF, US Marshals, and Secret Service.  The bulk of this money goes to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). With a budget of $18.2 billion in fiscal year 2021 and more than 60,000 personnel, CBP is the largest law enforcement agency in the country, and more than 85 percent of the agency's Border Patrol agents (i.e., 16,731 of 19,648) are concentrated on the southern border. Trump’s reckless deployment of the military to the border to include active-duty troops have cost approximately $745 million.

The Trump administration spent $15 billion dollars on border wall construction from 2017-2020 (with about $10 billion of those dollars forcibly taken from military funds). More than 400 miles of new or replacement wall were built by the end of 2020. No single estimate exists on the cost-per-mile of wall construction, but a 2019 OMB estimate put it at about $24.4 million dollars per mile. Recent Pentagon estimates show that immediately halting construction of the border wall will reap immense savings on U.S. taxpayers to the tune of $2.6 billion dollars.


A growing Mexican economy, an aging population and dropping fertility rates have led to a dramatic decrease in unauthorized migration from Mexico. In fact, net migration from Mexico is now zero or slightly below (more people leaving than coming). CBP data shows that recently, Mexican migration has fallen and there is a larger flow of people being apprehended from countries other than Mexico.

Now, we have seen a rise in the number of people seeking humanitarian protection and asylum. This shift notably includes an increase in the number of families and minor children that have been forced to flee from violence and persecution.


Increases in CBP spending and staffing come at a time when migrant apprehensions continue to be near a relative all-time low. Total migrant apprehensions sharply dropped to about 400,000 in fiscal year 2020, decreasing by about half from a high in 2019. This comes at a time when the Trump administration scaled up its anti-immigrant and anti-asylum policies, and during a virtual shutdown of border crossings due to the coronavirus pandemic. Still, the size of the Border Patrol is now many times larger than it was in the early 90s. Roughly 17,000 agents patrol the southern border region in fiscal year 2019. The size of the Border Patrol is outsized. For greater perspective on these figures, on average, each of the 17,000 Border Patrol agents in the southern border apprehended a total of 4 people per month. In the early 90s, when the Border Patrol was significantly smaller, agents apprehended an average of 27 per month.


The southern border region is home to about 20 million people living in border counties in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. These communities, which include cities such as San Diego, Douglas, Las Cruces, and El Paso, are among the safest in the country.

A recent analysis of 2019 FBI Crime statistics by Axios confirmed this fact - border cities have among the lowest violent crime and property crime rates per capita in the country. Their analysis of 11 border cities showed that on average these communities had a lower violent crime rate than the national average for 2019 (338.5 compared to 366.7 per 100,000 people). Cities of comparable populations and demographics in the interior of the country were shown to have much higher crime rates in some cases. For some cities such as El Paso, violent crime rates have been on decline since 1993.

And the map below shows that among the four southern border states, many cities have a violent crime rate that is well below the national average.


CBP has extraordinary authority that far exceeds other law enforcement agencies. Under 8 U.S.C. 1357(a) and 8 C.F.R. 287.1, CBP asserts the power to act without a warrant and do any of the following inside the United States without first establishing any suspicion of wrongdoing as is normally required under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution:

  • Interrogate anyone to ask for their papers in the U.S.
  • Search cars, buses, trains up to 100 miles from border.
  • Enter onto private property (but not a dwelling) up to 25 miles from the border.

CBP’s unchecked powers are clearly exemplified in the hundreds of checkpoints that they operate in the interior of the country. This vast network of checkpoints allows CBP to infringe on the rights of border residents with tactics like the use of racial profiling as a basis for stopping drivers.

CBP’s extraordinary authority coupled with extraordinary resources has led to repeated abuse of power, pointing to gaps in agency oversight, accountability and training. Since 2010, CBP agents have killed more than 100 people. Fatal shootings are the most common cause of death for victims killed by CBP.

No known agents have been brought to justice for these deaths. CBP, however, has one of the highest termination rates for its agents when compared to other federal agencies. Like the chart below illustrates, whenever an investigation into an agent’s misconduct does take place, no action is taken the majority of the time.


In the 21st century, border residents and travelers should feel safe from corruption and abuse. The rapid buildup of CBP personnel has not been matched with a commensurate investment in oversight such as in sufficient investigators at the CBP Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) and DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) to address corruption and abuse within CBP. Accountability could be enhanced by (1) requiring the use of body-worn cameras, with adequate privacy protections, (2) gathering and public reporting of stop and arrest data from checkpoints and during roving patrols, and (3) limiting the “warrantless” authority that CBP uses to undermine 4th amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. CBP oversight and accountability must become a priority, and we can do this by adopting a New Border Vision and pushing national leadership to undertake transformative change.


The border region is an economic engine that helps support our national economy. The San Ysidro port of entry in California, for instance, is one of the busiest ports in the world and sees millions of people and goods cross every year. In 2019, over $400 billion dollars’ worth of goods were traded across the southern border. And analysts and economists estimate that about 5 million jobs in the U.S. are dependent on trade with Mexico.


Some 20 million people call the southern border region home, and this population is growing. From San Diego, in California to Brownsville in Texas, the communities that make up the border region are diverse and thriving. Estimates from the Census Bureau show that overall, border residents are more likely to be people of color when compared to the national average (Half of all border residents are Hispanic or Latinx).

Our region is also home to about 4.5 million immigrants (who are more likely to be proficient English speakers than not). The top country of origin for immigrants living in the southern border region is Mexico, but a significant number of people hail from Asian countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, China and India.


A rich and complex ecosystem makes up the southern border region. From coast to coast, the southern border is home to six different ecoregions. These include deserts, temperate sierras, dry forests, and great plains. A unique set of animals and plant species live and thrive in the southern border. An estimated 1,500 animals and about 500 plant species are unique to the southern border. All these are threatened by border militarization, including the deadly border wall. For example, the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has been desecrated by border wall construction. This park is not only a national monument, but it is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, places meant to be protected and managed in a sustainable way.


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Southern Border Communities Coalition is a program of Alliance San Diego.


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