As talks about comprehensive immigration reform heat up in Congress, the Center for Investigative Reporting has been taking a closer look at what’s going on along the U.S.-Mexico border:
- Who is getting caught with drugs at the border? A recent CIR report shows that four of five Border Patrol drug busts – most of it involving marijuana – involve U.S. citizens.
- Who is working for the Border Patrol? Would-be agents are confessing to rape, kidnapping and other shocking crimes during the final steps of the application process – the polygraph test. Read how recent polygraph admissions by border agency applicants are raising questions about previous hires.
- How effective is the Border Patrol? The U.S. Border Patrol only caught a fraction of border crossers spotted by a sophisticated radar dubbed VADER, which was originally used to identify roadside bombers in war zones.
In this month’s conference call to CIR members, national security reporters Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz provided a deeper look into the story behind the story – how our investigations began, how we got the data and how our findings fit into the larger narrative regarding border security.
Listen to the interview with Becker and Schulz and read select highlights. These answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to look into the border?
Schulz: We started this story with a question we start a lot of stories with. Border Patrol had grown really quickly in a short period of time. We wanted to know what the potential consequences could be.
Your findings were based on raw data that was hard to get. What makes that data so important?
Schulz: It’s one thing to rely on government statistics, press releases and congressional testimony to determine trends in law enforcement. But when you have data on each and every drug bust, you can answer all kinds of questions the government itself might not be asking and answering.
Becker: We realized a lot of seizures weren’t covered in press releases, so we wanted to go after the raw data on each and every drug seizure going back to 2005. Then, when we realized that a lot of U.S. citizens were being busted, we went back to the press releases to ask ourselves who were being mentioned most often in these press releases? It was a challenge trying to analyze 2,000 press releases, and our data guy, (Augstin Armendariz), did that for us.
How did you analyze the data?
Becker: We got our hands on a couple of different data sets through Freedom of Information Act requests. During the initial round, the rough numbers showed the number of people Border Patrol had busted each year for a seven-year time period. But we wanted to get more into the data: How much were these people getting caught with? What kinds of drugs and how much?
We appealed that initial release (of information) to ask for the raw data. We wanted to know every single drug bust for every single day, what they caught. How much they were caught with and their immigration status.
How does your reporting compare with popular perceptions about the U.S.-Mexico border?
Schulz: We knew this wasn’t going to capture completely the public’s perception of drug trafficking along the border, but we at least thought it could give some insight and aid the discourse around smuggling on the border. … It’s tempting, especially when it comes to political rhetoric around things like immigration reform, to look at the border as black and white terms. But if you spend any time down there, you know it’s far more nuanced than that.
Here’s the big question: How secure is the border?
Schulz: Depending on your political viewpoint, the GOP is always going to say the border is not secure enough. But, 100 percent security is not attainable. We’re going to spend ourselves insane if we try to achieve 100 percent security on the border.
For the Democrats, they’re focused on immigration reform. They like to give the image that the border is more secure than ever before. In order to maintain that message though, it’s been important for Customs and Border Protection to control the narrative around that border, so they’re reluctant to give up some information that we’ve obtained and to tell a more nuanced, deeper story on the border.
So, is the Border Patrol actually doing a good job?
Schulz: What we see from Washington, what they keep saying over and over is … we want more security, more technology, more trucks. When will it be enough? If we get immigration reform passed, will that mean 10,000 more Border Patrol agents? These agents are costing taxpayers an enormous amount of money. Are we going to stay at 21,000 agents, where we’re at now, indefinitely?
Some of our data we’re getting isn’t available to the public in the first place, so the public doesn’t know totally how effective Border Patrol is. We don’t totally know how secure the border is.
For continued coverage on the border, check out our series Crossing the Line.
Infographic by Lauren Rabaino.