There's a confrontation coming between the Obama administration and Republicans in Congress over the most basic question of immigration reform: How secure is the U.S. border with Mexico?
Not only does the administration not know -- and perhaps doesn't want to know -- but there are signs the border is less secure than some of the most skeptical Republicans thought.
Last year the Border Patrol began experimenting with a new drone-based surveillance system that had been developed for finding Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Starting in the fall, officials used the radar-based system over a fairly small portion of the Arizona border. The results were striking.
"According to internal reports, Border Patrol agents used the airborne radar to help find and detain 1,874 people in the Sonora Desert between October 1  and January 17 ," reported the Los Angeles Times last week. "But the radar system spotted an additional 1,962 people in the same area who evaded arrest and disappeared into the United States."
That means officers caught fewer than half of those who made the crossing in that part of Arizona. If those results are representative of other sectors of the border, then everything the administration has said about border security is wrong.
"These revelations are in stark contrast to the administration's declaration that the border is more secure than ever due to greater resources having been deployed to the region, and that lower rates of apprehensions signify fewer individuals are crossing," Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, wrote in an April 5 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
"Since the creation of DHS, Congress has provided significant funding increases in the number of Border Patrol agents, the building of nearly 700 miles of fencing and the deployment of advanced technologies to increase the nation's ability to monitor the border," the Texas Republican added. "However, we do not know if additional resources have produced better results."
For years, Napolitano and other officials at the Department of Homeland Security have pointed to the declining number of border apprehensions as proof that the total number of illegal crossings is also declining. Now, it could mean the administration just isn't catching most of the crossers.
"The results speak for themselves," says one GOP Hill aide involved in border security issues. "We can't really use apprehensions as an accurate measure when we're not even seeing half the people."
In light of the radar numbers, McCaul has asked Napolitano to provide data to back up her assertion that the border is more secure than ever. The answer could have a huge effect on the comprehensive immigration reform bills Congress will consider in coming weeks and months.
For example, there are reports that the Senate's bipartisan Gang of Eight negotiators have added a border security provision to their proposal to give immediate legalization to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. Before that legalization occurs, Homeland Security would have to submit a plan that would, within a decade, result in the apprehension of 90 percent of those who cross the border illegally. The department would also have to have 100 percent of the border under surveillance.
That's not all. The Gang of Eight plan is then expected to call for greater border security measures -- and results -- before those newly legalized immigrants are placed on a path that eventually will lead to citizenship.
Both provisions will be met with a lot of skepticism, at least on the right. Will Republicans really agree to legalize 11 million currently illegal immigrants on the strength of Janet Napolitano's promise to secure the border sometime in the next 10 years -- especially after Napolitano claimed, on the basis of dubious evidence, that the border is already secure?
Some immigration reformers see the radar story as hopeful news, showing that there are new ways to use technology to secure the border. But of course it is the administration's job to enforce border security, and DHS has spent years resisting even assessing the situation.
McCaul and others are expected to introduce legislation that would require Homeland Security to come up with a comprehensive strategy to secure the border -- and then carry it out. The problem is that such demands have been made many times in the past, and the border is still not secure. Given the Obama administration's record, is there any reason to believe that things will be any different this time, no matter what promises are made?