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In the increasingly politicized environment surrounding President Obama’s attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform, border security again became the focus. In an attempt to take the issue of border security off the table, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano claimed that “the border is secure. I believe the border’s a safe border.”

Certainly the foot traffic is down along the border given the weak economic conditions in the United States, but to boldly claim that America’s southern border is a “safe border” is somewhat preposterous—as if the border is akin to the border between Ohio and Michigan. Contrary to this rosy belief, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples has written a book decrying the continued violence on the southern border. Moreover, because the threat on the border is always changing, it really is somewhat arbitrary to claim something that is 6,000 miles long is “secure.”

It is always interesting to see how beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

Back in July 2005, then-Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano declared a “state of emergency” on the southern U.S. border in what many people saw as a purely political act aimed at undermining President George W. Bush. Of course, just five years later and just a year or so after she became President Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security, things down at the border had improved markedly.

In June 2010, Secretary Napolitano announced that the southern U.S. border was “secure now as it’s ever been.” That better-than-ever security occurred despite the utter failure of the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) program—a $1 billion technology program aimed at securing the border utilizing high-tech capabilities—that she rightfully ended in January 2011. In the two years since the cancellation of SBI, Secretary Napolitano still has not utilized technology on the border in a manner that would substantially elevate our control over the border.

The fact is that the only thing secure about the southern border is its use as a political football in the debates in Washington, D.C., over immigration reforms. As Heritage’s James Carafano wrote two and a half years ago:

For several years, Republicans have chanted a “secure the border first” mantra. It allowed them to look tough on the illegal immigration issue while dodging the issue of “comprehensive” reform. It’s a bad strategy. It suggests that, if the Obama administration overcomes the “border first” problem, it will be clear sailing for a push for amnesty.

Carafano wisely noted that:

[T]he real problem is that any strategy for reducing illegal immigration that includes amnesty is bound to fail. Granting a general amnesty will just encourage another wave of illegal border crossing. That is exactly what happened when the 1986 amnesty bill was passed. And that is exactly what will happen if Washington does it again.

But waiting until we get the border right before doing anything else to reform immigration policy makes no sense either.

Securing the border requires solving larger problems. It means working with Mexico to bust the cartels, enforcing our immigration and workplace laws, creating effective temporary-worker programs, and rejecting amnesty once and for all.

Border security really should be aimed at stopping the drug smugglers and other criminal activity, especially terrorist activity. Instead of fighting over when the “border is secure” label gets stamped on the border, Congress should move forward on visa reform that would significantly reduce the flow of illegal immigrants seeking work. Doing that simple act shouldn’t be tied to the condition of the border or rammed in some massive legislation undertaking that claims to solve all immigration problems comprehensively at once. Visa reform should happen because we want the world’s best and brightest and its risk-takers working for us, not against us.

immigration reform