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Path to citizenship hinges on border security

With a bipartisan group of senators joining forces, the so-called "Gang of Eight" this week made dreams of immigration reform appear on the horizon.

With a bipartisan group of senators joining forces, the so-called "Gang of Eight" this week made dreams of immigration reform appear on the horizon. President Obama has already listed a plan for America's 11 million people living in the shadows as a "top priority" for his second term, and his hawkish approach on enforcement has helped enlist Republicans. But as the Gang of Eight proposal stands, the fate of possible citizenship for millions of people hinges on a bolstered southern border.

“We put more boots on the ground on the southern border than at any time in our history,” Obama touted this week, adding that illegal crossings are down 80% since their peak in 2000.

Indeed, the president has committed a small army to the southwestern states--over 21,000 border patrol agents in 2011--racking up an almost $11.7 billion price tag in 2012, up $362 million allotted for the year before. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the federal government spent a total of $18 billion on immigration enforcement agencies, which accounted for an astounding 24% more in federal spending than what was given for the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service, and ATF--combined.

And as the number of agents and resources allocated to the border rose, the number of arrests and apprehensions along the country lines plummeted. Meanwhile, deportation rates skyrocketed under Obama’s first term, setting record after record for each year he was in office, with the 2012 tally at 409,849 deportations. By comparison, President George W. Bush deported just under 370,000 people in 2008.

The hefty price-tag on enforcement costs comes with an equally surmountable human cost that has shifted in the past ten years, author Rubén Martinez argued on Up w/ Chris Hayes Saturday. "Certainly the drug war has made it a scarier and darker place, but also the insecurity that has been brought to the border in the name of security," Martinez said. The lag in border-crossings from Mexico to the United States, Martinez argued, has less to do with the heightened presence of Border Patrol agents, and more with the state of the America's recovering economy.

Skeptics, however, say no matter how high the border fence walls stand--both physically and symbolically--nothing will stem the flow of immigrants entering the country. "From a conservative perspective, what they see is 11 million people eventually becoming citizens, and the magnet is still there," said former state Rep. Aaron Peña, who founded the Hispanic Republican Conference of Texas. "It's never going to stop, we're still going to have people coming."

Despite the unprecedented crackdown on the border, the senators crafting the immigration reform plan are pressing for more. One of the first points of the senators' five-page framework of the proposal readily states that border security had “improved significantly” during the past two administrations--significant, but not enough. The proposal pledges to infuse border security with even more resources, and create a commission of governors and law enforcement officials from southwestern states to monitor security measures.

The revived version of the reform proposal was laid out this week through four legislative pillars stating that Congress must "create a tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States that is contingent upon securing our borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required."

The provision is a holdover similar to that of President George W. Bush’s 2007 immigration bill that ultimately failed, which tied a path to legalization with increased security. But that contingency leaves leeway for lawmakers to determine the definition of a "secured border."

"Despite all the headlines about a bipartisan group of senators ripe for comprehensive immigration reform, success will come down to the details of the proposal, details that will matter a tremendous amount to millions of people," Hayes said Saturday. "And it's the details that might prove the legislation's undoing."

Additional reporting by Up w/ Chris Hayes producer Todd Cole