Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.
Everybody from politicians to Border Patrol officials to regular old Joes in Tucson wants the border secured.
But how we measure that is nebulous.
Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher told Congress in February that the agency's goal has been to "gain, maintain and sustain operational control."
While that term - operational control - has become a buzzword, it is not uniformly defined. And the Border Patrol has already discarded it in favor of new performance measures it is developing.
When Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin was asked how he defined a controlled border during a leadership vision series at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., last October, he said this:
"Border security means public safety and the sense in the community that the border is being reasonably and effectively managed."
Arizona's longtime Republican Sen. John McCain was asked how he defined operational control during a press conference last month in Tucson.
"Implementation of Jon Kyl and I's 10-point plan," he said, touting a proposal for more Border Patrol agents, National Guard troops and several new initiatives.
So how, in lieu of a uniform measurement recognized by all, do taxpayers and legislators gauge progress on border security?
There's no clear answer.
"It's certainly legitimate to ask, 'What's the return on investment here?' " said Doris Meissner, commissioner of the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000 and senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for comprehensive immigration changes.
The federal government has invested $15.8 billion since 2005 on border security between the ports of entry, shows budget information from the Department of Homeland Security. Another $12.4 billion has been spent on border security and trade inspection at the ports.
Indicators suggest that the additional agents, fences and technology funded by that money have made the border more secure, said Rich Stana, director of homeland security issues at the Government Accountability Office.
"But that said, there is still a ways to go," Stana said. "One of the key elements in improving border security is having a reliable measure of how you assess that."
The question of how the government measures border security has garnered more attention in recent months, highlighted by a hearing of a House committee on Homeland Security and a Government Accountability Office report.
After 15 years of unprecedented spending on border security, and in tight budget times, Congress needs to know what works and what doesn't, Meissner said.
"It's been an article of faith that we need border enforcement and we need more of it, and certainly that's valid," Meissner said. "But I don't think we've gotten to the point before where one could actually say, 'Well, how much is enough?'"
In the Secure Fence Act of 2006, Congress defined operational control as preventing "all unlawful entries" into the United States.
But Congress' definition has not been consistent in bills, reports and correspondence since that act, the Border Patrol said in an emailed statement.
In recent congressional testimony, Border Patrol Chief Fisher said the term refers to the agency's ability "to detect, identify, classify, respond to and ultimately resolve all threats within the theater of operation."
Using that definition, 44 percent of the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border is under operational control, shows a February GAO report. Nearly 70 percent of the 262 miles in Border Patrol's Tucson Sector fit that category.
The definition in the Secure Fence Act is an unrealistic standard to which no other law enforcement agency is held, said Stana and Meissner.
"It would be very expensive to create that kind of assurance," Stana said. "You would be talking about something akin to the inner German border during the Cold War, where very few, if any, could penetrate it without fear of losing one's life."
The Border Patrol should be asked to manage the border, not prevent every illegal entry, Meissner said.
No matter how you define it, Fisher, Bersin and their boss, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, insist that operational control should not gauge overall border security.
Fisher said, "Operation control is not, in and of itself, a measure of border security."
"Achieving border security requires a whole-government approach," the Border Patrol statement said, "whereas the Border Patrol's 'operational control' is a narrow tactical term confined to Border Patrol capabilities in a particular area of the border."
And now the Border Patrol is replacing the outdated measure with metrics that more accurately reflect the state of border security.
"It's not necessarily coming up with new metrics as it is about understanding how those metrics apply in today's border environment," Fisher said.
The agency expects the new approach to be more cost-effective, the GAO reported, which is a great sign, said Tom Barry, senior analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington.
"They are aware their budget will be more closely scrutinized than before," Barry said. "Part of this analysis has to be a cost-benefit evaluation, not just a numbers game. Are these billions worth it?"
The Border Patrol plans to test the new measures in fiscal 2012, which begins on Oct. 1, 2011.
stats can mislead
In the meantime, the Border Patrol is focusing on apprehensions to measure progress.
Napolitano and Bersin often cite a 60 percent reduction in apprehensions in the past six years as one sign the border is more secure.
The reduction, since it's coincided with the buildup of agents, is a valid measure of effectiveness, Meissner said.
But it shouldn't be used as the primary method for judging border security because the stat is insufficient and can be misleading, she said.
The same person can be counted multiple times, meaning the yearly total represents the number of arrests - not the number of people caught. And a dip in apprehensions might reflect fewer jobs available due to the economic downturn.
Using apprehensions as a measure of the Border Patrol's efficiency would be akin to judging a baseball player by his hits without knowing how many times he's been at bat, said Stana of the GAO.
"You have the number of apprehensions but you don't know how many people might have been there to apprehend," Stana said. "You have to have the numerator and the denominator to judge performance."
New measure coming
In the last decade, the government has vacillated on what it's trying to accomplish with its border security strategy, said Barry of the Center for International Policy.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the focus was keeping out terrorists. By 2005, it shifted to illegal immigration. In recent years, with the flow of illegal immigrants slowing, border security has become synonymous with preventing spillover violence from Mexico's raging drug war, Barry said.
In January during a speech in El Paso, Napolitano said, "Our goal is to have a safe, secure border zone that is also hospitable to and fosters legal trade, travel and immigration. Our goal recognizes that the border is not simply a line on a map. It is an entire area, extending into both countries. Moreover, a safe, secure border zone requires vigorous enforcement of our nation's immigration laws in the interior of our country as well."
As it creates standards to measure progress, the Border Patrol must define what it aims to accomplish, Stana said. "If there is difficulty getting to performance measures, it may be rooted in the fact that we're not clearly articulating exactly what it is we want to do," he said.
For instance, if the agency's goal is to stop illegal entries close to the border, it could use the GPS coordinates recorded with each apprehension to measure how many were made within five miles of the border, Stana said.
The Border Patrol also could use more in-depth analysis of fingerprints.
Agents should be able to determine how many times a person has been caught, where he's been caught before, and if he or she was voluntarily returned or formally deported, Stana said.
"Is it the same individual trying five times or is it five individuals?" Stana asked.
The agency should seek outside consultation from analysts and academics on how best to establish new performance measures, Meissner said. Not only would it help make the measures stronger, it would give the agency credibility with legislators and the public.
"If it's viewed as purely an inside, opaque exercise," she said, "it won't have the same kind of influence."
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org