Since Sept. 11 the White House and the Congress have routinely approved proposals for increased numbers of Border Patrol agents. In the last three years, 6,000 additional agents have been added, bringing the total Border Patrol contingent to more than 18,000 – making it by far the largest federal enforcement agency. President Obama has requested funding for an additional 100 Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents as part of his “border security” budget proposal. It’s unclear if such a large force is needed to patrol the borders to, as CBP says, protect the homeland “against dangerous people and goods.” As immigration flows have diminished, Border Patrol agents on both the northern and southern borders are spending less of its time and resources on arresting the immigrants it categorizes as “dangerous people” and more on drug interdiction. In implementing its “drug war” mission, CBP says it is “risk-based.” But neither the its record of its seizures nor the operational deployment of Border Patrol agents indicate that, in practice, CBP and its Border Patrol have a “risk-based” focus. Rather, like its role in immigration enforcement, CBP and the Border Patrol have what is in effect a zero-tolerance policy, and the record of its drug interdictions demonstrate its unfocused, wide-net interpretation of its mission. The vast majority of the drugs that it seizes and the people it arrests are hardly “dangerous” people or goods. They are mostly illegal immigrants looking for work and marijuana. Clearly, there are “dangerous people and goods” that enter our country, and we need government agencies like CBP and the Border Patrol to obstruct this dangerous traffic. But we need to be certain that there is a clear mission focus at CBP and the Border Patrol if we are continue to pour billions of increasingly scarce taxpayer dollars into border security. CBP’s annual budget has more than doubled since 2002, rising to $10.9 billion in 2009. Before President Obama and Congress rush to approve yet more funding for border security, hard questions need to be asked about the lack of mission focus at Homeland Security. Since the “war of drugs” was launched, the federal government has drafted into the questionable war the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), established in 1973 with the Department of Justice as the sole federal agency responsible for drug control. Since then the drug-war bureaucracy has extended deep into the State Department, Defense Department, and into other parts of the Justice Department. In 1988 President Reagan established yet another front in the drug-war offensive with the creation of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. While the Border Patrol and immigration agents have always had bit parts in the drug war, the integration of border patrol and immigration enforcement into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 not only drafted them into the “war on terrorism” but into becoming major players in the “war on drugs.”
At the start of a new administration and a new Congress, it’s time to start asking if the Border Patrol is really focused on protecting the nation against dangerous people and goods or if it, like other law enforcement agencies, have become distracted from the public safety and national security missions by an ill-conceived and long-failing drug war.