The creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after 9/11 precipitated the border security muddle - with strategic, political, and economic consequences.
Without duly considering the strategic implications, the administration shifted the border and immigration-enforcement agencies from the Justice Department to DHS.
From the start, DHS was an unwieldy bureaucracy, the function of which was never entirely clear. The department's law enforcement, intelligence, counterterrorism, and security responsibilities overlap with those found within the Justice Department, White House, intelligence community and Defense Department - creating a strategic mess. The federal government has yet to formulate a definition of homeland security that would justify the continued existence of this hastily established, unwieldy department.
Instead of adding a counterterrorism dimension to its law-enforcement mission, security became the core mission of the Border Patrol. Its core function - namely patrolling the border to deter or apprehend illegal border crossers - was rhetorically reconfigured to match its post-9/11 mission. Accordingly, immigrants and illegal drugs were relabeled as security threats, as "dangerous people and goods."
Janet Napolitano, DHS secretary, Alan Bersin, former commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher repeatedly attempted to counter the rising fury among House Republicans and border security activists with a shower of statistics demonstrating the extent of the Obama administration's commitment to border security.
Still, DHS and the Border Patrol are caught in contradictions and threat-assessments of their own making. The bombastic declarations by the Bush administration and by the Border Patrol about the Secure Border Initiative - about the high level of border security the combination of a border wall, a virtual fence, and a near doubling of the Border Patrol would achieve in several years - has made it difficult for the Border Patrol to scale down the expectations and demands of the border security hawks.
The dramatic decrease in illegal border crossings by immigrants, along with the skyrocketing fees demanded by immigrant smugglers, provide indisputable statistical evidence that the border security buildup is certainly making it ever more difficult to cross the southwestern border illegally.
More gruesome evidence can be found in the increasing number of immigrant deaths as desperate women, men and children attempt, unsuccessfully, to cross the border along its most forbidding stretches of deserts, mountains and raging waters.
The rising seizures of illegal drugs do point to increased border vigilance. Yet, the continuing capability of smugglers to satisfy increasing US demand for most illegal drugs underscores the validity of the charges by border hawks that the border is still not "secured."
The Border Patrol's recently released "2012-2016 Border Patrol Strategic " illustrates the disjuncture between the agency's new counterterrorism mission and its longtime border-control operations. Rather than determining that security objectives should be guided by targeted strategic planning, the Border Patrol persists in its awkward efforts to shoehorn traditional border control functions into a border security strategy.
DHS and the Border Patrol have unwisely doubled down on a security-centered strategy for border control. Yet, as the new strategic plan makes clear, the identified risks and threats almost exclusively concern the traditional targets of border patrols - immigrants and drugs.
The border security muddle has also had political consequences.
DHS categorizes all illegal border crossing entries as security threats - thereby committing the nation to the impractical and monumentally costly goal of securing the border. As the Border Patrol knows well, it is virtually impossible to ensure effective control over America's boundaries. That would mean sealing more than 7,500 miles of land border and more than 12,000 miles of coast while monitoring the legal entry of more than 175 million visitors each year.
By promising border security through "operational control," the Border Patrol has left itself open to critics who charge that America remains vulnerable despite the billions of dollars spent in border security programs. As a result, the Border Patrol has found itself subject to sharp political criticism and escalating demands that the border be secured.
Instead of toning down its border security commitments and adopting more pragmatic positions, the Border Patrol has further muddled border policy in its new strategic plan. The agency once again failed to explain in a straightforward manner its dual challenge. On the one hand, it is now tasked with protecting the nation against the entry of foreign terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, it is charged with enforcing immigration laws and fighting the war on drugs.
The two functions should be guided by different strategies and involve different types of operations. Unfortunately, the new strategic plan subsumes all border operations under its counterterrorism role - maintaining the post-9/11 myth that all pressures the agency faces on the border are security threats. Indeed, the new strategic plan increases the strategic emphasis on security, risks and threats. It is no surprise, then, that the agency is floundering as it attempts to formulate meaningful performance measures.
In addition, the border security muddle is fraught with adverse economic consequences.
In the name of securing the border, the Border Patrol has insisted that no expense should be spared. Nearly 10 years ago, the Border Patrol committed itself to a new mission of securing the border against threats to the homeland. During this period, DHS has spent more than $100 billion in various border security operations.
The General Accounting Office (GAO) and Congressional members have long demanded that the Border Patrol measure the cost-effectiveness of the agency's various initiatives and operations. But Border Patrol has held itself above the most basic standards of transparency and accountability while resisting the most elementary cost-benefit evaluations.
As the nation transitions away from its post-9/11 fears and wars, US border strategy needs to be overhauled and updated. A new strategy for border control should be closely linked to a penetrating review of counterterrorism, the drug war, and immigration policies.
The time is auspicious for such a revision. New budgetary and debt concerns, escalating critiques of immensely expensive and shamefully ineffective border security programs and expanding critiques of the drug war have opened up new political space.
Moving forward, DHS must define what it means by "border security," and the Border Patrol must go back to the drawing board to formulate a more comprehensive and cogent strategy, along with closely linked performance measures.
The Border Patrol must also demonstrate that its "metrics" are indeed based on closely considered threat assessments and risk-management processes. As part of its strategic thinking, the agency must do the following: categorize risks and threats, prioritize them, justify this prioritization, mount programs to target these prioritized threats, and establish a methodology to measure performance.
DHS must distinguish between vulnerability and probability in its border operations. Simply because it is possible that a band of foreign terrorists, along with weapons of mass destruction, could enter the United States by illegally crossing the border doesn't mean that it is likely. Border Patrol operations must assess risks based on probability - not on mere possibility. Without risk assessments based in probability, there would be virtually no limit to border security spending. Similarly, the costs of border security investments should be proportional to verifiable benefits.
The Border Patrol is fond of making bold pronouncements about border security and is constantly launching new initiatives, as amply demonstrated in this new plan. New rhetorical flourishes about border security are not needed. Rather, US border policy merits a serious strategic review of the border security mission with the aim of producing a strategic plan that contains substance and displays vision.
Unfortunately, the Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol remain trapped in a policy muddle of their own making.
(This article contains excerpts from a new international policy report, , published by the Center for International Policy.)