When will the U.S. border be secure? No politician has dared to give a specific answer. And, as two new reports conclude, the people in charge of border security haven't defined success, either.

As a result, as the Migration Policy Institute put it, "few meaningful measures have been developed to assess results and impact from the very significant immigration enforcement expenditures - nearly $187 billion - the country has made since 1986.

"How much is needed and where? What is the relative cost-effectiveness among various enforcement strategies? And at what point does the infusion of additional resources lead to dwindling returns or unnecessarily impact other national interests and values?"

The other report, from the Government Accountability Office, looked at how the Border Patrol manages resources along the Mexico border. The study was requested by U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, a Tucson Democrat whose district includes much of the Arizona border.

It said the Border Patrol is "developing key elements of its 2012-2016 Strategic Plan needed to define border security and the resources necessary to achieve it, but has not identified milestones and time frames for developing and implementing performance goals and measures in accordance with standard practices in program management."

Yikes. No one disputes that the federal government needed to spend more to secure the border and enforce immigration laws. But Americans are standing silent while holding their wallets wide open.

When can we declare "mission accomplished?" We have no idea, because voters haven't asked and politicians have been afraid to get near the subject.

Barber has planned two public meetings on the GAO report - in Tucson and Douglas - this month. He's right to try to ignite this long-overdue conversation about what "Secure the border!" means and how to measure it.

Agreeing on what "secure" entails, we predict, will be a long and heated process, as it's not a yes-or-no question.

It's not possible to entirely zip up the border or to be assured that no one will ever get across without authorization. But if we don't begin to hash out a common understanding, taxpayers will continue to spend without having any idea what we're buying.

Arizona Daily Star


• What: U.S. Rep. Ron Barber's office briefings on GAO report on Border Patrol operations.

• When: 5:30-7 p.m. Jan. 28 in the city of Douglas Visitors Center, and Jan. 29 at Pima Community College East Campus, 8181 E. Irvington Road.

• Information: Those who want to attend the briefings can RSVP to AZ02.RSVP@mail.house.gov

Find the reports

• Read the GAO report: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-13-25

• Read the Migration Policy Institute report: