Monday, September 27, 2010

Time to Rein In Border Security Bandwagon

Border fence at Naco, Arizona/Photo by Tom Barry

(The first in a series of articles on the border security policy and new policy directions.)

The border is not secure.  The Obama administration knows it, border politicians campaign about it, drug smugglers profit from it, and illegal immigrants seek their futures because of it.

Border security is both a national goal and an opposition battle cry. After Sept. 11, 2001, border security became one of the central imperatives of the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its border-focused Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency. Congress and the executive branch have dedicated tens of billions of dollars in budget increases for border security.

 Both DHS and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have launched an ever-expanding array of initiatives to secure the border. Yet the alarm about border insecurity continues to intensify. The phrase “Secure the Border” has been, for example, the simple message of Senator John McCain’s 2010 campaign billboards.

Border security policy and operations are the government’s response to what CBP calls “dangerous people and goods.”  In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the functions of border regulation and control were upgraded to security missions. For the government, the border became a “frontline” for homeland and national security. 

Immigrants and Drugs

Although concern about foreign terrorists and imported weapons of mass destruction animated the initial post-9/11 drive to secure the border, the traditional targets of border control -- illegal immigrants and illegal drugs – have remained core to the federal government’s new border security policies and operations. Illegal immigrants and drugs -- reconfigured as national security threats – are also the main concerns of the leading border security proponents outside the administration.

Immigration is now commonly considered a security issue. Border security, for example, has become central to the immigration reform debate. All reform proposals, no matter their political provenance, stress the fundamentality of border security. Since 2005 most congressional immigration reforms explicitly link immigration and security, notably the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005 (introduced by Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain) and the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 (introduced by Congressman Luis Gutierrez).

Over the past couple of years, border security has also become synonymous with long-lived war on drugs, especially combating and interdicting Mexican drug smuggling. For many of the most vociferous critics of the Obama administration’s border security efforts, the threats of illegal immigration, illegal drugs, and terrorism are conflated in the form of narcoterrorism.

Border Security Bandwagon

Border security is a consensus political issue. Only the most idealistic voices on the left and the most uncompromising free-market voices o n the right advocate an “open-borders” policy. Most every other political sector explain their positions on the border in terms of the need for “border security.”

Today, the drive for border security seems unstoppable. At a time when calls for fiscal austerity compete with demands that the government do more to take financial measures to end the great recession, there is no public or policy community opposition to ever increasing border security budgets. The latest emergency border security bill was approved without dissent in a voice vote at the close of the 2010 summer session of Congress.

The generous authorization of border security funding has not been constrained or checked by either monumental failures of border security initiatives (such as SBInet’s proposed “ virtual fence”), the absence at DHS of a detailed border security strategy, or even the lack of a working definition of “border security.”  

The increasingly clamor of border politicians claiming that the federal government is failing its responsibility to secure the border, horrifying drug-related violence in Mexico, and the hope that increased border security will create more political space for immigration reform are among the driving forces of the border security bandwagon.  For the White House – the Obama administration like its predecessor – the enthusiastic bipartisan consensus and lack of popular opposition also explain its role in fueling the runaway border security bandwagon.

The apparent simplicity of the border security issue and the undeniable recent advances in controlling the border also drive border security.  If the problem at the border is illegal entry of people and goods, then all it takes, it is argued,is a combination of personnel, infrastructure (mainly fences), and technology to stop this illegal traffic.

What is more, not only is the solution simple and readily understandable. It also works, as the Border Patrol can readily attest.  Starting in the early 1990s the Border Patrol has demonstrated that concentrated resources – personnel, infrastructure, and technology – can shut down the border, or at least urban sections of it.

No doubt that the border is more controlled as the result of the succession of border security funding bills and annual budget increases, both at DHS and DOJ as well as the dramatically increased involvement of state and local law enforcement.  The Obama administration is certainly right to say that the border “has never been more secure” when measured in terms of immigrants apprehended, immigrants deterred, drugs seized, narcotics arrests, and the increasing costs of cross-border smuggling.

Still, the demands for more border security continue to intensify.  Complaints that the federal government is not doing enough continue to reverberate among border politicians and to echo nationally.
Although never in the quantities demanded by the most vociferous of border hardliners, the Obama administration is yielding to demands for more Border Patrol agents, more money for local law enforcement, more unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, National Guard deployments, and more prosecutions of drug users and immigrants.

Neither in raising new border security demands or in yielding to them, however, has it been considered relevant to note the lack of any evaluation of the impact of such initiatives, any cost-benefit analysis, and any assessment of how these measures increase America’s security. Both at the border and in Washington, border security is more about political gamesmanship than about solving the challenges of counterterrorism, drug control, or immigration policy – as pointed out in 2000 so astutely by Peter Andreas in his excellent Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide.

There’s no going back to the failed policies of the past, back to the badly broken borders of the era when border control was haphazard, largely localized, and based on practices rooted in tradition.
Yet, just as assuredly, there should be no more moving forward with slap-dash border security operations shaped more by politics than by strategy. Nor should we continue to fund expanded border security efforts simply because there is no opposition to proposals to use deficit dollars in the name of increasing our security. 

Although current border security discussions generally revolve around drugs and immigration, the concept of border security was a creature of Sept. 11. And just as advisability of the resulting “global war on terrorism,” along with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have come under deserved public and policy-community scrutiny, so too should the still popular commitment to border security.

Policy and operations should target to core problems.  That’s never been the case with U.S. border control, and this disjuncture between policy and problem solving has widened over the past decade.  Since border control has been framed as a security issue, there has been less political space to question the value and cost of border control operations.

Port-of Entry Ft. Hancock, Tx/El Porvenir, Chihuahua/Tom Barry
True Before 2001, True Now

The threat of cross-border terrorism has created new policy challenges. But what was true about border policy before Sept. 11, 2001 remains true today, namely:

1)      Border security is mostly about political showmanship and manipulation,
2)      Border security  favors sweeping rather than focused operational responses,
3)      Border security compounds existing problems in our criminal justice system, and
4)      Border security has ignored the obvious policy causes – drug, immigration, and employment policies -- of the perceived border problems.

Not only has our ill-considered commitment to border security unnecessarily drained the national treasury, it has obstructed immigration and drug policy reforms while dangerously skewing counterterrorism policy. The lack of a coherent border policy has also allowed the politics of reactionary populism and nationalism to flourish at the local, state, and federal levels, as especially evident in Arizona and Texas.

(Next in the border security series:  Prevention through Deterrence Strategy.)

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