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Monday, April 20, 2009

The Failed Secure Border Initiative

Something isn’t working. In late 2005 Michael Chertoff, the new secretary of the Homeland Security Department, launched the “Secure Border Initiative” as the umbrella program for border control and immigration enforcement. The announced goal of SBI, described as “a comprehensive multiyear plan to secure America’s borders and reduce illegal migration,” was to gain “operational control of both the northern and southern borders within five years.” Now, in response to calls for more border security by region politicians and fears of a spillover of Mexico’s drug-related violence, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has announced a renewed operational focus on Southwest border security. The new initiative, “The Southwest Border: The Way Ahead,” continues to meet recent increases of cartel violence in Mexico with strong action and solidified coordination with federal, state, local, tribal and Mexican authorities. SBI benefited from an infusion of new congressional funding initiatives in 2005 and 2006 for the border wall, the virtual fence, more Border Patrol agents, and more detention beds. The new initiative, in contrast, will largely rely on redeploying existing personnel and resources to the border. It emphasizes increased collaboration between federal and local law enforcement agencies to rid the country of “criminal aliens” and to interdict flows of drugs and arms. Risk-Based Security Enforcement DHS says the new initiative will be based on a “risk-based decision-making process.” All the various DHS initiatives that are part of its SBI umbrella program contend that they are “risk-based.” DHS contends it is protecting the homeland against “dangerous goods and people.” In practice, however, its array of border control and immigration enforcement programs cast a wide net – with most of the arrests being immigration violators and drug law offenders rather than dangerous criminals. Marijuana leads, by far, the list of illegal drugs seized, even though there is widening consensus, even in the criminal justice community, that marijuana is not a “dangerous good,” especially when compared with cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. A key component of the new border security initiative is the Border Enforcement Security Taskforce (BEST), which brings together federal and local law enforcement agencies, along with Mexican officials, in a collaborative but ICE-directed effort to deploy teams “where transnational criminal organizations exploit vulnerabilities along the nation's border.” DHS is doubling the number of ICE agents on BEST teams throughout the Southwest borderlands that will lead transborder criminal investigations. The expansion will allow DHS to “strengthen the program's ability to dismantle the leadership and supporting infrastructure of the criminal organizations responsible for perpetrating violence and illegal activity along our borders and in the nation's interior.” The achievements of the existing BEST teams don’t support ICE declarations that their investigation and prosecutions are “risk-based.” The existing 95 members of BEST teams in the Southwest were responsible for 1,000 criminal arrests in 2008, but most of its arrests – 1,256 – were for administrative violations, presumably transgressions of immigration law. Marijuana seizures topped the list of drugs confiscated. BEST seized 42,400 lbs. of marijuana, 1,803 lbs. of cocaine, and 66 lbs. of heroin. Next: Operation Stonegarden Photo: Michael P. Farrell/Hearst Newspapers. Border Patrol agents detain a Chinese immigrant after canine team finds a marijuana joint in her knapsack in upstate New York.

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