Border securityReliable measurement, program evaluation, and institutional memory: The Border Patrol’s new national strategy

By Lee Maril

Published 24 May 2012

What the Border Patrol vitally needs, along with all our members of Congress, is an adequate measurement of Border Patrol performance which, placed within an historical context, allows anyone to fairly and consistently judge the progress of this vital law enforcement agency regardless of which party holds power; instead, what we may likely see from the Border Patrol new National Strategy, announced on Tuesday, 8 May, is a multi-million dollar quagmire metric generated by a one-of-a-kind software package premised upon the Border Patrol’s same old unreliable data — apprehension rates; or, worse still, an opaque metric which is classified so the public has no idea what it really measures or leaves out

On Tuesday, 8 May, the Border Patrol officially soft-launched its new National Strategy in testimony before the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security of the House Committee on Homeland Security.  It is the first new national strategy since 2004 and will, according to the Border Patrol, cover years 2012-2016.

All large organizations face tough challenges and decision making when there is turnover in leadership.  At more than 200,000 employees in twenty-one different agencies, the Department of Homeland Security is an excellent example of this truism.  But what if you had a law enforcement agency not only subject to regular changes in leadership, but also geometric growth?  And what if this same agency was tasked with protecting national security at our borders?  In situations such as these, institutional memory and program evaluation are crucial.  And content of this new strategy set aside for the moment, so too are accurate and objective measurements by which to judge their performance objectively.

Before 9/11 the Border Patrol was an antequainted agency of less than 4,000 agents who went about their difficult work with no one looking over their shoulders.  After 9/11 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was thrust into the media limelight as the first line of defense against international terrorists, along with its previous job of capturing illegal immigrants and illegal drugs. Measurements of Border Patrol performance  were annual rates of apprehension of illegal immigrants and amounts of drugs interdicted. 

These measurements were deeply flawed.  For example, before the policy of Catch and Release was put to rest, a single undocumented worker could be arrested, released, arrested, released, and then arrested again all within several hours or days: each time he was arrested, he would be counted as a one more border apprehension representing the Border Patrol’s expertise in capturing illegal aliens.  The agency’s response to critiques of its measurements teeter-tottered on the tautological: but simply put, you cannot take bad data, compare it to other bad data, then argue that the result of the comparison is somehow worthy of merit. Garbage in, garbage out.

Even though the Border Patrol’s baseline data — data against which agency effectiveness and performance can be objectively measured — was at best highly questionable, before 9/11 no one much cared.  After 9/11 these same data were closely examined because national security was determined to be at stake. There were myriad problems not only in the collection of these data, but in the