WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Committee Member John McCain, R-Ariz., Wednesday sought an objective definition of successful border security.

At the first in a series of hearings on the progress made toward securing the border, particularly the southern border with Mexico, the Senators asked expert witnesses how to determine the effect of a decade-long increase in border security spending, what the goal should be for security along the border, and the meaning of recent decreases in the apprehensions of illegal immigrants.

“We have spent a lot of money on securing the border over the past decade,” Lieberman said. “And we have made significant gains in security as a result of this investment.  We are having these hearings to find common ground about what more needs to be done and to build consensus about how we can achieve the ultimate goal of providing a secure environment for our citizens along the border.

“An important part of securing the border also involves addressing the fact that most people endanger their lives crossing the border illegally to find work. And we must recognize that 40 percent of illegal aliens in this country entered legally and then overstayed their visas.”

McCain said: “Ten years ago, we could not have anticipated the headlines that routinely appear in newspapers today, throughout the country, detailing the dangers along our southern border.  While our border with Mexico has always seen some level of illegal immigration, it has not seen the powerful threat of deadly violence that exists today as a result of Mexico’s ongoing war against its drug cartels,” said Senator John McCain.  “I recently returned from a visit to our southern border and we are seeing progress along our land borders, but progress is not success.  We must remain vigilant and continue to make every effort to secure our border.”

The statistics indicate much progress has been made to secure the border. From 2000 to 2010, the Border Patrol’s manpower has grown from 9,212 to 20,558 agents and its funding has almost quadrupled – from $1 billion to $3.6 billion. At the same time, Border Patrol apprehensions have decreased by 73 percent since 2000, from 1.65 million to 442,000 in FY2010.

But the government has no good indicators to measure whether the decreased apprehensions are, in fact, a result of the increased funding or a weaker economy which attracts fewer job seekers from Mexico.

Furthermore, witnesses agreed that about 40 percent of all illegal immigrants in this country entered legally – mostly by airplane — but failed to exit the country when their visas expired. Again, the federal government fails to systematically track why these people overstay their visas, and GAO testified today that only a very small percentage of our enforcement efforts address this substantial population.

Witnesses at the hearing included Asa Hutchinson, former Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security at the Department of Homeland Security; Doris Meissner, former Commissioner for Immigration and Naturalization Services at the Department of Justice; and  Rich Stana, Director for Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the Government Accountability Office.