Written by Jena Baker McNeill
One of many concerns raised by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington is the security of U.S. borders. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 established border security as a major mission for the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The failed congressional attempt at comprehensive immigration reform focused renewed attention on the U.S. border with Mexico as well as on the challenges of illegal border crossings and surges in cross-border crime.
These efforts have contributed to a decrease in the illegal alien population in the U.S. and to an expansion of cross-border security cooperation with Mexico. Sustaining these efforts is an essential component of regaining control of America's southern border and battling cross-border crime cartels while improving the flow of legal goods and services across the border. This was a good start. Today, however, the Obama Administration must continue these measures and work to integrate national efforts with state and local governments as well as with private citizens.
At the Border
Understanding the southern border is the first step toward gauging border security progress. This border is more than just a demarcation on a map-it has unique challenges that must be considered in any attempt to gain operational control. Not only is the southern border extremely long, spanning 2,000 miles from Texas to California, its terrain is incredibly diverse, from rugged, mountainous regions to expansive and barren desert. While physical features, such as the Rio Grande River and the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, serve as natural border barriers that limit the ability of people to enter the U.S. illegally, in other areas all that separates the United States from Mexico is an old fence.
The main method by which to enter and exit the U.S. and Mexico is through the 39 ports of entry (POE). These POEs operate almost around the clock, processing vast numbers of people, goods, and vehicles. In 2005, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processed more than 319 million people and more than 133 million trucks and cars, a good majority of which came through the southern border. While the POEs act as a security mechanism, these entrances are also a constant source of vulnerability, largely stemming from out-of-date and dilapidated infrastructure.
POEs serve to regulate the flow of people, goods, and services into and out of the U.S. and Mexico, making the border an economic engine that generates hundreds of billions of dollars a year in commerce for both countries-and moving goods and services throughout North America. This shared border has also led to an extensive economic relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. America is Mexico's primary source of foreign direct investment (FDI). Immigrants living in the U.S. send millions of dollars in remittances back home to Mexico every year. The benefits of this relationship to the U.S. are also immense. Due to the free-trade relationship established between the two countries under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico became America's second-largest trading partner. (In 2008, China became No. 2, with Canada in first place, and Mexico dropping to third.)
Challenges and Challenging Solutions
As the economic relationship between the U.S. and Mexico has expanded, challenges have also arisen that jeopardize the security of the border and require the immediate attention of both the U.S. and Mexico.
Cartels Running Amok. Criminal cartels have seized de facto control of broad swathes of land in Mexico just across the U.S. border. Some of the most powerful cartels include the Gulf Cartel, The Federation, the Tijuana Cartel, the Sinaloa, and the Juarez Cartel-who have also been known to make alliances with one another. These cartels sell drugs and weapons, engage in human trafficking, and launder money. From these "businesses" stem ever-increasing numbers of kidnappings, robberies, and murders. No ordinary street gangs, these cartels are like violent mini-militaries, fully equipped with intelligence, weapons, and other equipment. They engage in these crimes largely without interference from Mexican law enforcement, which is simply too overwhelmed, lacking both manpower and resources to tackle the problem.
Cartel violence has escalated in recent years in retaliation to Mexican President Felipe Calderon's efforts to crack down on cartel criminal activity. In 2007, close to 3,000 people were murdered by cartels. By 2008, the number had risen to more than 5,300 (the number is expected to rise in 2009). The motivation behind this violence largely centers on the highly profitable illegal drug trade-largely fed by American demands for illegal narcotics. This battle has induced outrageous acts of violence in areas like Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican city across the border from El Paso, Texas, including gruesome beheadings. In June 2008, a 12-year-old girl was killed when cartel gunmen used her as a human shield.
The violence has begun to spill over into the United States. In January 2008, a U.S. Border Patrol agent, Luis Aguilar, was run over and killed by drug smugglers as he tried to arrest them in California. In 2005, four Americans were kidnapped for ransom by a cartel in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, not too far from Laredo, Texas. While they were later released, their kidnapping as well as other acts of violence led the U.S. State Department to issue a travel warning for American tourists in the Laredo area.
Illegal Immigration. Approximately 11 million illegal aliens live in the United States. About 375,000 people enter the U.S. illegally through gaps in the southern border each year. Once in the U.S., illegal aliens often do not feed the tax system, but put a major strain on government services, such as for health care and education. Particularly hard-hit are state and local governments, which often bear the burden of footing the bill. Illegal aliens in California have cost the state between $9 billion and $38 billion in public services. The state of Texas has estimated that the bill for illegal immigrant hospital care was as much as $1.3 billion in 2006. While statistics demonstrate that the illegal population has decreased over the past year, the costs still remain too large for state and local governments to handle. Furthermore, in the wake of the economic downturn, as the number of illegal aliens has decreased, so have the budgets of state and local governments-providing fewer dollars with which to pay for these services, and placing a heavier burden on taxpayers.
While the economic impacts of illegal immigration are disconcerting, gaps in the southern border threaten the physical safety of Americans. Among these millions of illegal aliens are serious criminals, often not even from Mexico, seeking to enter the U.S. undetected. In 2007, CBP apprehended a man attempting to cross the border into the U.S. in the Yuma sector of Arizona. Upon his arrest, CBP discovered that he had already been arrested 23 times in the U.S. for a multitude of crimes including robbery, and had already spent eight years in jail and 13 years on probation.
How to Assess Border Security
The standard for evaluating current and future border programs is how effectively they contribute to the overall national goal of shifting the balance between lawful and illegal migration, combating transnational criminal and other national security threats, and enhancing the sovereignty of both the U.S. and Mexico. Doing so requires actions based on the following principles:
Manpower Increase. In 2006, the Bush Administration called for a 6,000-person increase of Border Patrol agents by December 31, 2008, bringing the total number of agents to 18,000. CBP instituted a major recruitment campaign, and has reported that the goal has been met. CBP recently announced that it plans to hire 11,000 more people in 2009 (many of which will be new agents).
Some critics argue that the U.S. should be spending more money on technology and less on manpower-citing the cost of hiring and training new agents. Training one new agent at the Border Patrol Academy was estimated to cost $14,700 in fiscal year (FY) 2006. While the cost of training new agents is high, Border Patrol agents are useful for a variety of missions, including drug interdiction, apprehending illegal aliens, preventing acts of terrorism, and ensuring the free flow of commerce across the ports of entry-activities that cannot be handled exclusively by technology.
Concerns remain that the current recruitment levels are too large for the Border Patrol training centers to handle. Training facilities are already overwhelmed; the demand for an additional 11,000 agents will make training even more of a challenge.
Support of the Guard. In 2006, President Bush sent 6,000 National Guard troops to the southern border through a program called Operation Jump Start. These troops were deployed under Title 32 ("National Guard") of the United States Code and were tasked with helping current Border Patrol agents secure America's borders. As CBP became more successful in its recruiting efforts, these troops were phased out.
The National Guard deployment was met with concerns by some Americans that President Bush was militarizing the border-possibly violating the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. The Posse Comitatus Act makes it unlawful to use the "Army and Air Force to execute the domestic laws of the United States except where expressly authorized by the Constitution or Congress." But the National Guard members, who are stationed at the border under Title 32 ("National Guard") of the U.S. Code, are not subject to the prohibitions of Posse Comitatus, unlike deployment under Title 10 ("Armed Forces"). In addition, any federal troops employed not tasked with the apprehension of illegal aliens or other law enforcement efforts under either title are not covered under the prohibition. Congress has also authorized exceptions to Title 10 for certain homeland security related activities.
During Operation Jump Start, Guard troops assisted CBP through intelligence and administrative activities. Concerns that the troops would stay indefinitely, to the detriment of other national security missions, such as the war in Iraq also proved unfounded. Troops were eventually phased out. (In fact, several border governors were concerned the National Guard might be leaving too early.). Although the National Guard should not be placed at the border for the long term, this does not mean that the Guard could not have a role in keeping America's borders safe.
At this time, National Guard forces can best support border security activities through support during annual training periods. These deployments benefit guard units by providing additional training opportunities and can provide added support to Border Patrol agents. Activities can be programmed in advance so they facilitate rather than disrupt other training and deployment requirements. During these operations National Guard forces can remain under Title 32 status which places control of these troops under the command of the state governor.
The Secure Fence Act. The Secure Fence Act was enacted by Congress in 2006. The bill directed DHS to build 670 miles of physical fencing along the southern border by December 31, 2008. Construction was met with a variety of challenges; the cost of materials for fencing, such as steel, skyrocketed. Furthermore, DHS went through lengthy challenges-including litigation (which DHS ultimately won), which dealt with the issue of whether the Secretary of DHS had the power to waive environmental laws along the border. As of January 2009, 601 miles of physical fencing had been built-but DHS continues to build more fencing.
Employing tactical infrastructure at the border remains an issue of some controversy. Some view the fence as sending the wrong message to our southern neighbors-that Americans do not like them. Others argue that the financial cost is too high and that it is harmful to the environment. Those who support the effort, however, insist that it is the only way to truly stem the tide of illegal immigration-a barrier that can make apprehending illegal aliens easier by slowing them down as they enter America.
In some areas, erecting fences is the best way to tackle the illegal-entry problem. But the cost makes it important to use fencing only in areas with a low "melting point." The melting point is the time it takes for an individual to cross the border and "melt" into a landscape unnoticed. In urban border communities, spending money on physical barriers makes sense because individuals can easily cross the border and sneak quickly into the urban landscape (for example, one can hide in a building or steal a car and drive away). But in other areas, like the middle of the desert, the barren landscape makes it easy for Border Patrol agents to detect border crossers.
CBP has made considerable progress in constructing border infrastructure, though installation has been slowed by dramatic increases in the cost of materials and litigation. Additionally, the initial estimates for fencing requirements did not account for the increase in deployments of manpower and technology at the border. As a result, CBP should reassess the cost effectiveness for any additional infrastructure, and Congress should listen to their recommendations.
SBInet. Initiated in 2006, SBInet is designed to bring new technologies and capabilities to support the work of the men and women of the Border Patrol. The program deploys a combination of both infrastructure and technology, such as cameras, radars, sensors, and towers, along 387 miles of border, with the goal of creating a "virtual fence" to help border agents detect people as they attempt to cross the border illegally.
The beginning phases of SBInet were problematic. Construction of the SBInet system was delayed because of land permit issues. DHS encountered permit problems when it learned that the environmental waiver authority for fencing did not extend to SBInet. These problems as well as complications with the technology itself delayed implementation by three years. The program also faced complaints by DHS that the pilot program did not obtain enough input from the Border Patrol agents who would be using the equipment.
While the pilot program was deemed operational in February of 2008, concerns remain that SBInet will never be fully functional. In September 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) remained "unclear and uncertain" about what kind of technological capabilities will ever come out of SBInet and emphasized that current requirements were still "ambiguous and in a continued state of flux." The SBInet program has taken significant steps to remedy the concerns expressed by GAO, including replacement of the program manager. Program officials have indicated that the project will move forward with permanent construction by April 2009.
State and Local Governments. During the Bush Administration, state and local governments began to see the first-hand effects of lax border security on their communities, including skyrocketing costs for illegal-immigrant services, increased crime in border towns, and travel restrictions and warnings stemming from border violence. Washington's failure to tackle comprehensive immigration reform frustrated these state and local governments even further-driving them to take action.
Recognizing the interest of state and local governments in border security, the Bush Administration did create some initiatives which would allow these governments to participate in border security. The Secure Border Initiative (SBI), for instance, instituted a program to work with corrections departments to identify illegal aliens in prisons so that these individuals could be deported to their home countries instead of being released in the U.S. when their sentences ended.
Supporters of state and local participation in border security emphasize that the U.S. needs to do more to integrate state and local governments into the planning and execution of border strategybecause these governments are much more familiar with the on-the-ground realities at the border and bring valuable knowledge of local culture, customs, geography, politics, and threats to the community. Local governments enforce housing violations and police departments recover stolen cars, often cutting off smuggling and drug-trade avenues. Others argue that since state and locals often end up footing the bill for illegal immigrants, these governments should have an opportunity to engage in decision making at the border.
On the other hand, some Americans insist that the federal government, exclusively, should handle the border because it is a function of national security and falls under Washington's constitutional responsibility to "provide for the common defense." While it is the federal government's job to secure the border, allowing state and local governments to participate will do more than just enforce U.S. laws-it will increase the safety of their communities-and it should be encouraged. It is vital that DHS begin to look for ways to further integrate state and local governments into border security-capitalizing on their knowledge, expertise, and willingness. The ability of such an effort to succeed is documented and demonstrates the need for this type of teamwork at the border. In 2006, Operation Rio Grande, a program among federal, state, and local law enforcement officials was a big success. The program, instituting interdiction operations, community policing, and other measures, reduced crime by a whopping 60 percent in patrolled border counties.
The wrong approach to this problem would be to establish a sweeping mandate that would force state and local law enforcement to do the federal government's job. Instead, DHS can rely on Section 287 (g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which allows DHS to enter into assistance compacts with state and local governments. Under this section, states can secure adequate training for state and local law enforcement officers- including training on immigration and civil rights law and racial profiling issues-who would then be authorized to deal with immigration offenders and enforce immigration laws.
Private Citizens. Much like state and local governments, private citizens living in border communities recognized the need to take action at the border-because border crimes and illegal immigration were having a direct impact on their neighborhoods and daily lives. Border ranchers, for instance, had had enough of illegal aliens destroying and stealing fencing and scaring cattle from watering holes. Affected citizens began to organize and take action on their own. One such example is the Minuteman Project-a neighborhood watch group focused on detecting illegal aliens and securing the border.
While some view the success of the Minutemen as an example of the potential positive impact of private citizens at the border, others remain concerned that such activities verge on vigilantism. Concerns also remain that these volunteers are assuming significant safety and liability risks. However, it is not unheard of for private citizens to assist in vital government functions. In America, citizen's arrest laws exist, allowing an ordinary person to make an arrest if he or she has personally witnessed a felony. While citizen's arrest laws vary from state to state, what is important is their significance: American laws recognize that ordinary citizens can help the government enforce the law. Using citizens at the border can produce a multitude of benefits, as demonstrated by the success of the Minuteman Project. Citizens can protect property from crime, deter drug sales, and act as additional community policing in border communities-allowing law enforcement and Border Patrol agents the leeway to focus on intercepting drug shipments and catching potential terrorists.
Critics of citizen involvement at the border are rightfully concerned with the safety and liability ramifications of these activities. A volunteer attempting to apprehend a trespasser on his or her property could be harmed without proper training and guidance. Minimizing these concerns requires a certain level of organization and accountability, which can be achieved through accreditation, official standards, and practical employment concepts consistent with volunteer service. The best way would be to encourage states to organize State Defense Forces (SDFs), volunteer organizations dedicated to assisting the federal government in a number of activities, including border control. These forces report to and are funded by state governments, are governed by state law, and report to the governor. Such an organization allows SDFs to use state military resources, such as armories and training sites, while requiring states to provide training and other resources to volunteers.
America's Relationship with Mexico. During the Bush Administration, both the United States and Mexico sought to strengthen ties with one another. Economically, President Bush reaffirmed his support for NAFTA, the free-trade agreement formed in 1994 among the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. In exchange for this and other forms of economic support, Mexico began to cooperate more extensively with the United States on matters of border security and illegal immigration. Both President Bush and President Vicente Fox agreed to work together to reduce deaths at the southern border, where many people die while attempting illegal border crossings.
American union groups criticize the U.S.'s free-trade relationship with Mexico as harming American workers by shifting jobs to countries where labor and production are cheaper. During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama insisted that he would rewrite NAFTA if it did not include more protections for American workers. But the reality is that NAFTA and other free-trade agreements have benefited American and Mexican workers in terms of more jobs and more business. During the first 13 years of NAFTA, U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) grew by more than 50 percent, and the economy created a net 26 million new jobs. Between 1993 and 2007, Mexico added 10.1 million jobs to its economy and enjoyed $375 billion in trade with NAFTA countries.
New Challenges. Mexico has been strongly affected by the U.S. economic downturn in late 2008. Mexico relies heavily on oil revenues and sales to the U.S. market-the United States purchases as much as 82 percent of Mexico's exports. As economic growth in Mexico decreases and unemployment rises, illegal immigration may begin to increase again if quality of life further deteriorates in Mexico (illegal immigration decreased with the U.S. economic downturn).
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed the focus at the border from purely illegal immigration to include the security of the U.S. homeland-as the U.S. became concerned that the southern border might be used as a loophole for terrorists to enter the U.S. Mexico's current economic instability has provided the drug cartels with more power-adding to the security concerns at the border. The more powerful the cartels become, the more rule of law deteriorates-making the border ever more susceptible to crime and terrorism.
The increasing power of drug cartels and deteriorating rule of law, as well as Mexico's economic instability have led some scholars to question whether Mexico is destined to become a failed state. But the United States and Mexico, working together, can ensure that this does not become a reality. America must remain steadfast in its commitment to free trade with Mexico and should expand economic opportunities with Mexico and Central America as much as possible. Mexico's security is linked to America's security-if Mexico remains a haven for drug cartels and other serious criminals, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain control of the border.
The Way Forward
The Obama Administration should use the lessons learned and best practices of the Bush Administration as a guide for the future. Reinventing the wheel on border security would be a waste of resources and would further delay real security at America's borders. Following is a guideline for the Obama Administration and Congress.
To better secure the border, 11,000 border agents and support staff are set to be hired-and must be trained to do their jobs effectively and safely. To meet these training demands, Congress and DHS should:
Gaining control of the border is not optional- the security of the United States depends on the ability and determination of the U.S. government to keep its citizens safe. The U.S. can, and should, do it in such a way that fosters prosperity for Americans and Mexicans alike.
Jena Baker McNeill is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.