Friday, November 30, 2012

Border Security Consensus Means Less Accountability

Normandy-type barrier on New Mexico-Chihuahua border at Antelope Wells / Photo by Tom Barry
A deep reserve of support for operations and policies that have anything to do with border security runs across the political spectrum. Whether at the federal, state, or local level, there exists near unanimous bipartisan support for border security.
Even in military and national security arenas, no comparable level of Republican and Democrat advocacy for border security can be found. This consensus, which extends to liberal critics of U.S. immigration policy, helps explain why the Border Patrol has not been held accountable for its wasteful programs (particularly its high-tech ones), failure to undertake cost-benefit evaluations, sloppy strategic thinking, and superficial risk-management processes.
As a rule, Republicans are more hawkish about border security than Democrats. Generally, support from the political right for border security is driven by a combination of anti-immigrant backlash, alarm of alleged spillover violence, xenophobic convictions, and opportunities to bash the failings of the federal government. Standing out for their critique of border security framework and the border security buildup are economic libertarians and free-market ideologues.
Among centrist and left-center nongovernmental advocacy organizations concerned with immigration and Latin America policies, there has also been widespread acceptance of the new homeland security and border security frameworks for border policy and operations. Some advocacy and policy organizations may find the security framework distasteful but they accept it as a post-9/11 political reality.
Especially among Washington, DC research and policy institutes, border policy reform initiatives aim to make border security operations smarter, more humane, and less wasteful without questioning the concept that the border needs to be secured. 
In some respects it is a matter of pragmatism over principles, but to a large degree there is unquestioning acceptance of the security framework for border policy. As a result, DHS and CBP – and to a lesser degree, state-based border security initiatives – can count on a far-ranging continuum of support for border security. 
Left of center, border security is widely regarded as a politically necessary precondition for successful immigration reform. Important exceptions to the acceptance of border security policy within the NGO community are drug policy reform, environmental, and human rights organizations.
In Congress, conservatives, moderates, liberals, and progressives generally have shared an enthusiastic support for border security policy and funding. 
Especially in the borderlands, there is fervent bipartisan support for border security funding – based less on any demonstrable improvement in public safety and more on the indirect economic benefits from the infusion of border-related funding, whether it be for more drug task forces, injections of federal funding in local law enforcement budgets, or the array of DHS construction projections. 
The $100 billion plus in border security funding since 9/11 has led to the rise of what some observers have called a border industrial complex.
The upshot of these political and economic factors is that, while there may be great skepticism about the focus and cost effectiveness of many border security programs, particularly the mainly high-tech projects, there is little political will to hold the Border Patrol accountable.
Yet the time for true accountability for the Border Patrol and the upsurge of border security programs may soon be coming. For one thing, in times of deepening deficits and reduced income, federal funding is increasingly a zero-sum game. Billions for border security translates into billions less for other programs dear to politicians and constituents.  
Fortunately, the resonance of anti-immigrant political rhetoric has diminished, in part because of the decrease in immigration and in part because of the adverse political consequences for politicians who have embraced anti-immigrant rhetoric and statutes. This erosion of the anti-immigrant political base has resulted in decreased resonance for border security alarmism.
Concerns about drug consumption and drug-related violence have also driven the border security buildup.  No doubt there is still widespread public concern about illegal drug consumption. At the same time, however, support for legalized marijuana is steadily expanding.  
And while drug-related violence continues in Mexico, the alarmism about spillover violence is increasingly dismissed because of the lack of substantiation about such crossborder violence and because of the enviable public-safety conditions in the borderlands – whose cities and rural areas have among the lowest crime rates in the nation.
Also contributing, albeit marginally, to decreasing popular support for more border security funding is the growing realization that the illegal drug seizures by the Border Patrol and other border security operating outside the ports-of-entry are almost entirely marijuana. 
The Border Patrol describes the Arizona border as a “high risk area,” yet more than 95% of its drug seizures are of marijuana, a natural substance that generally only dogmatic moralists consider a “dangerous” good or a threat to the country’s security.
As the concerns that led to the border security buildup – border-crossing foreign terrorists, high illegal immigration flows, and spillover violence – the enthusiasm for border security and the uncritical support for new funding are diminishing. One result may be more sensible border policies, and another consequence may be increased demands in Congress that the Border Patrol be held to much higher standards of accountability.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Securing the Border Against Foreign Terrorists

(This is the second part of a Border Lines series on the Border Patrol's lack of strategic focus and its continuing inability to define what it means by "border security" and to measure border security.)

The Border Patrol asserts that its main mission is to protect the homeland against terrorists and terrorist weapons. 
The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Border Patrol mission states:
We are the guardians of our Nation’s borders.
We are America’s frontline.
We safeguard the American homeland at and beyond our borders.
We protect the American public against terrorists and the instruments of terror
Inexplicably, however, the agency has never included terrorism protection as a performance indicator. Nor has the Border Patrol offered any evidence that its “intelligence-driven” border security programs actually focus on terrorists and terrorist networks. 
One likely reason that the Border Patrol does not address its counterterrorism in any detail is that the agency’s border security buildup on the southwestern border has not resulted in the apprehension of members of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, as identified by the State Department.
Experts in counterterrorism agree that there is little risk that foreign terrorist organizations would rely on illegal border crossings – particularly across the U.S.-Mexico border – for entry into the United States.
While the fear that foreign terrorists would illegally cross U.S. land borders drove much of the early build-up in border security programs under the newly created homeland security department, counterterrorism seems to have dropped off the actual and rhetorical focus of today’s border security operations.
Indicative of this reduced focus on terrorism and return to the traditional focus on illegal immigration and illegal drugs is found in the recently released 2012-2016 Border Patrol Strategic Plan. There is only one reference to terrorism in the new strategy’s executive summary. In contrast, the previous Border Patrol Strategy, issued in September 2004, has thirteen such references. 
The Border Patrol offers no explanation for this stunning change in focus. Counterterrorism is still cited as the overarching goal of CBP, yet there is little in the strategy statement to demonstrate this strategic focus.
(to be continued)

Photo: Border fence in Agua Prieta with old border monument on south side of new fence / Tom Barry

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Border Security Shadows Immigration Reform

Immigration reform is back in the center of U.S. politics. But so is border security.
Like a miracle, the November election resurrected bipartisan consensus for immigration reform. Support for some type of immigration reform, whether comprehensive or piecemeal, spans nearly the entire political spectrum in post-election America -- in large part because of dramatically increasing political participation of Latinos, Asians, and other immigrant-based communities.
Advocacy for immigration reform is breaking into various camps – from those only supporting an expansion of guest-worker programs to those who insist on comprehensive immigration reform. All camps agree that border security is the necessary foundation for immigration reform.
When speaking about the new prospects for immigration reform after his reelection, President Obama made the now required nod to border security. It’s rare to hear any politician or reform advocate speak favorably of immigration reform without the apparently requisite bow to border security.
In U.S. political and advocacy communities, strong support for massive border security spending (or increased funding) constitutes a common ground. Virtually all regard border security as a precondition for immigration reform.
Yet for all the enthusiastic support for increased border security – whether as nationalist response, a tactic to achieve immigration reform, or because of anti-immigration or pro-drug control convictions – there is no common understanding of what border security actually means.
The Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Border Patrol aren’t much help in defining or assessing border security.
About the closest they come to defining border security is declaring their commitment to “secure the border” against the entry of “dangerous people and goods.” This more militaristic and threat-laden phrasing that pushed aside the pre-9/11 language of “border control” and about blocking flows of illegal aliens and illegal drugs. 
The ambiguity and expansiveness of the new border security mission is paralleled by the Border Patrol’s apparent inability to evaluate the threats and risks to border security and to assess the degree to which the border is secure.
(to be continued)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Border Marijuana: Stamp It, Don't Seize It

The drug prohibition era began through the implementation of tax and certification regimes not with a zero tolerance mandate. Initially, it was widely accepted in Congress and among law enforcement agencies that there were legitimate medical uses for opiates and even stimulants.
The Harrison Act of 1914 aimed to end the recreational market for heroin, opium, and cocaine but was not intended to stop physicians from prescribing narcotics. The Harrison Act was self-described as "An Act To provide for the registration of, with collectors of internal revenue, and to impose a special tax on all persons who produce, import, manufacture, compound, deal in, dispense, sell, distribute, or give opium or coca leaves, their salts, derivatives, or preparations, and for other purposes." 

Although the objective of the Harrison Act was to regulate the domestic market, the legislation ushered the Customs Agency Service (later Customs Service and currently divided into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP))  into drug control in a major way for the first time -- both because the agency was empowered to enforce the act at the border and also because this first foray in drug-prohibition legislation led to a boom in cross-border drug smuggling.

Marijuana was not on the radar of drug prohibition proponents at the time the Harrison Act became the law of the land. By the 1930s, however, drug prohibition advocates had succeeded in instituting marijuana bans in several states. But the U.S. government didn’t see marijuana as the threat to public health, public safety, and national security, as it currently does. At the time, community healers and the medical sector were still exploring the medicinal and therapeutic uses of marijuana, and U.S. businesses were legally selling hemp fiber, oil, and seeds.

In its Narcotics Manual of 1927, the U.S. Customs Agency Service stated: “Neither is there any Federal law specifically regulating the importation of Marihuana, but by regulation under the Food and Drugs Act, Collectors of Customs are directed to refuse delivery of all consignments of Marihuana, unless the importer shall first execute a penal bond conditioned that the drug referred to will not be sold or otherwise disposed of for any purpose other than in the preparation of a medicine.”

The federal government gradually began cracking down harder on marijuana distribution both in the domestic market and on the border. The U.S. Border Patrol was created in 1924, but it was not until the late 1930s that the agency was given a clear mandate about marijuana enforcement.

Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which brought cannabis into the drug control structure established the Harrison Act for heroin, opium, and cocaine. A high tax was levied on marijuana distribution by this 1937 drug act, whose main proponent was Harry Anslinger, the antidrug crusader who was commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Under the provisions of the Marijuana Tax Act, the federal government made marijuana control its business for the first time -- through regulation of the importation, cultivation, possession, and marketing of the cannabis plant.

Although not explicitly prohibited, the anti-narcotics legislation put marijuana for the first time in the same regulatory framework used to crack down against heroin, opium, and cocaine – whose principal victims were the poor and people of color, not the predominantly middle- and upper-class consumers.

It remained legal to import marijuana into the country, and the U.S. Customs Agency Service did collect taxes and affix a certifying stamp on burlap bags of marijuana that met its requirements for legal use and sale. But the end result was that marijuana fell subject to an increasingly restrictive regularly climate that by 1970 evolved into complete drug prohibition.

Richard Nixon became the first drug warrior in the White House. Under his leadership, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, under which marijuana was classified as a Schedule 1 substance, along with heroin, MDMA, LSD, peyote, psilocybin, and other substances.

At the time that Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, the U.S. Customs Service Agency was not preoccupied with securing the border against crossborder flows of marijuana, as the Department of Homeland Security is today. The agency’s narcotics manual noted: “Marihuana may be cultivated or grown wild in almost any locality. Inasmuch as this drug is so readily obtained in the United States, it is not believed to be the subject of much organized smuggling from other countries.”

But the federal government’s steady move away from noninterference toward regulation, enforcement, and prohibition has resulted in a boom in marijuana smuggling, horrific drug-war violence in producer and transition countries, and mass criminalization and incarceration in the United States.

Today, the Customs and Border Protection agency, especially the Border Patrol, has made marijuana enforcement the chief operative focus of its border security mission. One can only speculate at what point will the federal government begin reversing its border control practices, perhaps by once again taxing and stamping marijuana imports. Or even -- with the advance of a medical marijuana and marijuana legalization -- end the agency’s misguided and ineffective commitment to marijuana enforcement entirely?

Recalling the scenario described in the narcotics manual of the mid-1930s, we may see the future of marijuana.

It just may be possible that some day, sooner than we think, we could see a time when marijuana is again grows throughout the United States outside of a drug prohibition regime, thereby displacing the Mexican and other foreign suppliers, ending the need for so much “border security” spending, and undercutting the foreign drug warriors – both the legal and illegal ones.