|Border Patrol checkpoint at Sierra Blanca, Texas/Barry
The Department of Homeland Security, never having defined “border security,” has been struggling how to measure it.
A product of post-9/11 politics, the term border security has proved both a godsend and a bane for Customs and Border Enforcement (CBP), the DHS agency that includes the Border Patrol. The post-9/11 association of border control operations with national security was critical to the doubling of the budget and staffing of the agency.
Republicans and Democrats alike have eagerly approved ever increasing appropriations for border operations, including a series of supplemental and emergency appropriations that responded to alarmist political for increased border security.
But the new commitment to “securing the border” has also proved an unending headache for DHS, as it haplessly attempts to assure critics that border security is being achieved.
In keeping with the martial framing of border control as border security, DHS seized on the military concept of “operational control” as a way to measure its progress in securing the border. The Department of Defense states: “Operational control [also known as OPCON] is the authority to perform those functions of command over subordinate forces involving organizing and employing commands and forces, assigning tasks, designating objectives, and giving authoritative direction necessary to accomplish the mission.”
Although operational control did prove a convenient way to qualify the different levels of control that CBP exercised over the southwestern border, its admission that only 873 miles of the border were under full operational control underscored the validity of the critiques of border hawks that DHS is still not serious about border security.
Deep in a hole of its own making by its embrace of the concept of border security, DHS, rather than discarding the term as misleading and inappropriate, is digging itself deeper in the border security pit.
Typical of the Democrat’s weak-kneed response to Republican critiques of immigration enforcement and border control, DHS is basically accepting the criticism that statistics of immigrant apprehensions and drug seizures don’t adequate describe changing conditions along the border.
In her May 4 testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said that CBP is formulating a “new comprehensive index that will more holistically represent what is happening at the border and allow us to measure progress.”
In addition to numbers of arrests and seizures, DHS will also for the first time include measures of border area crime in its evaluation of the state of border security.
In addition, the new “metrics” of border security will, “also incorporate indicators of the impact of illegal cross-border activity on the quality of life in the border region. This may include calls from hospitals to report suspected illegal aliens, traffic accidents involving illegal aliens or narcotics smugglers, rates of vehicle theft and numbers of abandoned vehicles, impacts on property values, and other measures of economic activity and environmental impacts.”
These metrics constitute a bow to border hawks who contend that insecurity is widespread in the borderlands and that the traditional measures of border control don’t address the real causes of this fear – such as increased crime and a rise in spillover violence.
Clearly, though, DHS believes that this new index of border security will support its assertions that the border is more secure than ever before. A current reading of quality of life on the border would, for example, show crime rates that are below the national average and economic conditions that are improving faster than the national average.
“Ultimately the success of our efforts along the border,” said Napolitano, “must be measured in terms of the overall security and quality of life of the border region.”
At first glance, this assessment seems eminently reasonable.
However, by associating the mission of CBP with the borderlands society, Napolitano only emboldens border hawks and border politicians who demand continual increases in the funding for border infrastructure projects, border law enforcement, and border security operations, including military deployments and drone surveillance – pork for the border.
But more irresponsibly DHS is moving further and further away from its own central mission – securing the homeland and serving as an adjunct national security apparatus. The further away we are from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the more DHS is prone to Orwellian redefinitions, such as translating security as safety.
It has done this so effectively in immigration enforcement with its Secure Communities program. Translating border security as quality of life in the borderlands is another dangerous case of mission creep for a new federal bureaucracy that is itself in search of meaning.