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How secure is the border? 3 good reads on why it's hard to measure

A U.S. flag put up by activists who oppose illegal immigration flies near the US-Mexico border fence on October 8, 2006 near Campo, California.
A U.S. flag put up by activists who oppose illegal immigration flies near the US-Mexico border fence on October 8, 2006 near Campo, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

A sticking point in the renewed negotiations on immigration reform in Congress has been border security, and whether to make a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants contingent upon first "securing" the nation's borders.

But just what is a secure border, and how is it measured? Federal spending on immigration enforcement, including fencing, technology and agents along the U.S.-Mexico border, has skyrocketed in recent years. But exactly how secure the southern border is remains tough to determine, as noted in a few different recent news reports. These stand out:

NPR's Fronteras Desk recently shared a mathematical equation from Homeland Security that goes like this:

Effectiveness = (apprehensions + turn backs) / (estimated got aways + apprehensions + turn backs)

"Turn backs" refers to people who fled back into Mexico without crossing. The equation's reliability is open to interpretation. Border-crossing arrests by the U.S. Border Patrol have dropped dramatically,  but "that doesn't tell the full story," a related Fronteras report reads. "For example, recividism rates declined about 6 percent from 2008 to 2011, meaning many of those crossing illegally are trying again and again."

A recent New York Times piece reported from Texas notes disparities in border security, comparing heavily fortified stretches like the U.S.-Mexico border south of San Diego with other, relatively porous areas, such as Texas' Rio Grande Valley:

Indeed, by every indicator, illegal migration into the United States has fallen tremendously — in part because of stricter immigration enforcement — and has held steady at lower levels for several years. But all camps leave a lot out of the discussion. Visits to more than a half-dozen border locations over the past two years show that the levels of control vary significantly along the line in ways that Congress and the White House have yet to fully acknowledge.

And today, the Christian Science Monitor examines various strategies undertaken in the past decade to secure the border and what results they've had, citing two reports from the federal Government Accountability Office:

...a 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that only 873 of the nearly 2,000 miles of the Southwest border were under "operational control." Some 129 of those miles were under "full control" with the remainder "managed."  This year, another GAO report concluded that the agency lacks specific milestones and timelines to establish metrics that accurately assess border security.

An immigration reform plan proposed in late January by some members of the Senate withholds legal status for the undocumented until the border is "secured." Lawmakers behind this plan say more enforcement is needed, while critics say that with record spending and U.S.-Mexico border arrests at a low point, the border is as secure as it's going to get - and that with security hard to quantify, legal status for those who stand to benefit from it could remain elusive.

Read the most recent GAO report on border security here