Prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks, the term “border security” was rarely used. Today, however, it is both a fundamental goal of US domestic security and the defining paradigm for border operations. Despite the federal government's routine declarations of its commitment to securing the border, neither Congress
nor the executive branch has ever clearly defined the term “border security.”
Border security constitutes the single largest line item in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) budget. Nonetheless, DHS has failed to develop a border security strategy that complements US domestic and national security objectives. DHS has not even attempted to delineate benchmarks that would measure the security of the border or specify exactly how the massive border security buildup has increased homeland security.
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In its strategic plan, DHS does promise: “We will reduce the likelihood that terrorists can enter the United States. We will strengthen our border security and gain effective control of our borders.” And DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano assured us last year that, as a result of new border security spending by the Obama administration, “the Southwest border is more secure than ever before.”
Since 2003, Homeland Security and the Justice Department have opened spigots of funding for an array of border security operations. These include commitments for 18-foot steel fencing, high-tech surveillance, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), increased prosecutions of illegal border crossers and new deployments of the Border Patrol and National Guard.
Yet the federal government's continued expressions of its commitment to border security only serve to highlight the shortcomings of this commitment and to spark opposition to long- overdue immigration reform. “Secure the border” – a political demand echoed by immigration restrictionists, grassroots anti-immigrant activists and a chorus of politicians – now resounds as a battle cry against the federal government and liberal immigration reformers. These border security hawks charge that the federal government is failing to meet its responsibility to secure the border, pointing to continued illegal crossings by immigrants and drug traffickers. Border sheriffs, militant activists and state legislatures have even started taking border security into their own hands.
The post-9/11 imperative of securing “the homeland” set off a widely played game of one-upmanship that has had Washington, border politicians and sheriffs, political activists and vigilantes competing to be regarded as the most serious and hawkish on border security. The emotions and concerns unleashed by the 9/11 attacks exacerbated the long-running practice of using the border security issue to further an array of political agendas – immigration crackdowns, border pork-barrel projects, drug wars, states' rights and even liberal immigration reform. Yet these new commitments to control the border have been largely expressions of public diplomacy rather than manifestations of new thinking about the border.
In his groundbreaking 2001 study of border enforcement, “Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide,” border scholar Peter Andreas rightly observed that border policing has “some of the features of a ritualized spectator sport,” noting that the game metaphor reflects the “performance and audience-driven nature” of the politics of border control. As the politics of border security in Texas and Arizona so well illustrate, “secure the border” is a rallying cry that energizes constituencies, catapults politicians to office and produces a steady stream of Fox News appearances for prominent border security hawks. It also diverts the debate over border policies far away from any reflective discussion of the structural causative factors producing the border crisis.
Despite the border security buildups and $100 billion spent along the southwestern border, no terrorists or terrorist weapons have been seized. DHS does point out, however, that every year it regularly apprehends illegal border crossers from countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism. Those apprehended are mostly from Cuba, with single digit numbers from Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. Border security hawks point to these arrests of citizens from “special interest countries” as evidence that the “broken border” keeps Americans vulnerable and that the border should be completely sealed.
Ten years after the federal government undertook a new commitment to domestic and border security, the nation deserves to know what the tens of millions of dollars spent on securing the southwestern border have accomplished. Before more tax dollars are dedicated to border security, we need new policy frameworks for immigration and illegal drugs that disaggregate these issues from homeland and national security.
“Policy on the Edge,” the report from which this article is adapted, looks at the evolution of border security policy and the persisting failures. Starting with a brief review of border and immigration policies prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, the report then moves to the 21st century and the launch of the border security bandwagon of budget increases and alarmism spurred by the new security framework for border control operations.
The new security rhetoric has not been accompanied by more narrowly and strategically focused border operations. Instead, illegal immigrants and illegal drugs are the continuing target of the border security buildup.”Policy on the Edge,” concludes with eight recommendations for a more effective, more sharply focused and less expensive US border policy.
“Homeland” Security Conceives Border Security
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Border Patrol adapted its rhetoric to reflect its recently acquired “homeland” security mission. While the Border Patrol had occasionally referred to “securing the border” in the past, the use of the term “border security” gained prevalence only over the past decade. References to border security and border insecurity not only shape discourse about the border, but also about immigration, drug policy, US-Mexico relations and domestic security.
Border regulation and control have effectively been upgraded to a national security mission. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the DHS agency that oversees the Border Patrol, states that its “top priority is to keep terrorists and their weapons from entering the United States.” In keeping with its new status as a quasinational security agency, the CBP contends that it is securing the nation against “dangerous people and goods.”
For its part, the Border Patrol asserts:
We are the guardians of our Nation's borders. We are America's frontline. We safeguard the American homeland at and beyond the borders. We protect the American public against terrorists and the instruments of terror.
Today, military participation in border security includes the deployment of the National Guard, military training of civilian border law enforcement forces, and the military's cooperation in the management of drone flights along the border and into Mexico, as well as more institutional manifestations such as a presence in El Paso of the Joint Task Force North and the El Paso Intelligence Center.
National Policy Gone Awry
Living in the Southwest has long been a point of pride, especially for those in communities along the border. Public officials and citizen leaders have boasted of their region's binational culture, transborder communities and families, spicy food and easy mix of English and Spanish.
For many vocal borderlanders, especially in Texas and Arizona, their borderland status is no longer a common boast or esteemed asset, but rather a liability – and another cause for griping about Washington and big government. Proximity to the border has been the source of a new politic of indignation, outrage and resentment as deepening concerns about spillover violence, public safety threats and immigration flows have produced a sense of vulnerability and stirred deep resentment.
It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss the extreme and often bizarre embrace of the politics of border security as merely a regional affair. The fevered politics of border security taps insecurities, fears, resentment, prejudices and uncertainties felt throughout the nation to varying degrees. The proliferation of immigrant prisons along the border, the defiant creation of a “Texas model of border security,” border vigilantism and Arizona's anti-immigrant legislation, while often politically motivated and reeking of opportunism, underscore the inadequacies of the federal government's border, drug and immigration policies.
In adopting the border security rhetoric following 9/11, the federal government raised unrealistic expectations that the border can indeed be sealed and secured. Yet, never in our nation's history have we actually controlled our 1,963-mile border with Mexico. Contraband and non-authorized crossings have been a constant of border life, not a recent development.
Instead, border policy has been propelled by ambiguous annual statistics on arrests and seizures offered by the Border Patrol to justify budget increases. Year after year, decade after decade, border progress has been measured by the number of illegal aliens apprehended, the number deported and the millions of pounds of illegal drugs seized. When the numbers surge higher, this is cited as clear evidence of success. When numbers are lower, the Border Patrol also claims victory, pointing to the decline as evidence of the success of its strategy to prevent illegal entry through deterrence.
This heads-you-win, tails-you-win trick of tracking border progress continues today, albeit with variations.Regular reports of the numbers of criminal aliens imprisoned and deported compose part of the litany of Border Patrol and Immigration and Custom Enforcement's (ICE) great achievements. The rising number of immigrants labeled as criminal aliens and the number of imprisoned immigrants slated for removal are offered as data to support the DHS's contention of its progress toward protecting the border from potential terrorists and criminals.
But these boastful reports are never accompanied with explanations of how many of these criminal aliens and immigrant inmates have achieved their new status as a result of DHS policies and operations that criminalize immigrants for illegal entry and other immigration violations. Nor do the DHS border and immigration agencies bother to explain that many of the newly categorized criminal aliens are being deported for personal drug violations – yet another way the government has found to criminalize immigration and enforce immigration consequences (removal) for even misdemeanor offenses.
As Andreas observes in “Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict,” the ambiguity of ICE and Border Patrol's body count and drug seizure numbers “provides a mechanism to manipulate and distort the evaluation process, obscure and gloss over failure, and rationalize more funding and a continued escalation of drug enforcement.”
Instead of controlling the border, US drug and immigration policies are the major contributing factors to the persistent patterns of illegal border crossings. An effective border control strategy must, at the very least, recognize these causal policy factors and address possible fixes – not simply address the repercussions of these failed policies with the traditional fixes of stricter immigration enforcement, increased border militarization, strengthened barriers and increased Border Patrol deployment.
The Big Tent of Border Security
The elevated rhetoric – from control to security – has succeeded in focusing national attention on the border and vastly increasing funding flows. But the new national commitment to border security has not resulted in a more focused, strategic border policy.
On the contrary, the most remarkable feature of border security is how elastic the meaning and use of the term has been over the past ten years. Border security has become a big tent accommodating not only the post-9/11 border-related national security and homeland security initiatives, but also the traditional operations that target illegal immigrants and illegal goods, mostly drugs.
Immediately after 9/11, border security was associated primarily with counterterrorism and domestic security, but the association was short-lived. The new security framing of immigration and border control empowered restrictionists and the grassroots anti-immigrant backlash movement with a powerful new argument to seal the border and deport illegal immigrants. At the same time that the anti-immigration camps began gathering new forces, the pro-immigration movement and immigrant-rights advocates began to mobilize to pass a comprehensive immigration reform that included legalization.
In the midst of the ensuing national debate, the border security bandwagon gained traction. While the two sides were sharply divided on legalization, common ground emerged around proposals to increase immigration enforcement and border security. Soon, border security became synonymous with upholding public safety in the US borderlands, halting the flow of US weapons into Mexico, supporting the drug war in Mexico and breaking up transborder criminal organizations.
Border Security and Immigrant Crackdown Merge
The immigration crackdown, which began in earnest in 2005, was foreshadowed by the anti-immigrant measures of the Patriot Act and the widespread imprisonment of immigrants from Muslim nations. Signs of the escalating crackdown were also found in ICE's “Endgame” plan of 2003, in which its Office of Detention and Removal stated that it intended to “remove all removable aliens” over the next ten years.
By mid-decade, the rash of new border security and related immigration enforcement initiatives had little or nothing to do with securing the US against terrorists. The Border Patrol's “Prevention through Deterrence” strategy took on new import as a national security strategy to deter domestic security threats.
A new array of CBP and ICE programs – including the 670-mile “secure fence,” the planned $8 billion SBInet or “virtual fence,” Operation Streamline and the expanded Criminal Alien Program – constituted the “Secure Border Initiative” (SBI), which was launched in late 2005 by DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. In 2005, DHS described SBI as “a comprehensive multiyear plan to secure America's borders and reduce illegal migration.”
DHS insisted that the new initiative would be based on a “risk-based decision-making process.” Yet, in practice, DHS's new border control and immigration enforcement programs were not focused on demonstrable homeland security threats. Both the increased border fortifications and the intensified enforcement under the SBI umbrella continued the Border Patrol practice of targeting illegal immigration and marijuana smuggling, which were shoehorned into the new homeland security rubric of “dangerous people and goods.”
Chertoff was a veteran federal prosecutor who had been attorney general John Ashcroft's chief deputy in charge of Patriot Act prosecutions. In Chertoff's view, the deterrence logic of the criminal justice system – namely, criminalization and imprisonment – could also be applied to immigration enforcement at the border.
Through Operation Streamline, launched in 2005, the Border Patrol began turning over illegal border crossers to the federal courts for prosecution and criminal incarceration. After serving their criminal consequences for immigration violations, the Department of Justice's (DOJ) US Marshals Service (USMS) and Bureau of Prisons then transfer the immigrants back to DHS. In turn, ICE directs the immigration consequences of illegal entry, including lengthy incarceration in ICE's own network of mostly privately-run detention centers and eventual deportation.
This new practice of criminalizing immigration violations has vastly expanded the number of immigrants that DHS calls “criminal aliens.” As conceived by Chertoff, the new determination to charge and imprison illegal border crossers was part of a revamped, stepped-up deterrent strategy, which the Obama administration has continued.
Border Security Serves New Drug Wars
When the immigrant crackdown took hold in 2005 and cries for border security mounted, there was little mention of the fears and factors that have propelled the border security bandwagon since 2009. In late March 2009, in response to rising alarm about drug-related violence in Mexico, Napolitano announced the launch of DOJ's Southwest Border Initiative. This continuing initiative, described as a US-centered adjunct to the State Department's counternarcotics aid to Mexico through the Mérida Initiative, is loaded with border security language.
Rather than deciding that the surge of drug-related violence in Mexico was another reason to re-evaluate the 40 years of failed drug control policies, the Obama administration has reaffirmed US support for the military-led drug war in Mexico. The administration has also made a major public display of its determination to increase and redeploy DHS and DOJ resources to bolster border security.
The administration argues that border security and national security, as well as Mexico's security and stability, demand that we stay the course initiated by the Bush administration. Rather than seize the opportunity to end drug prohibition and the drug wars, Obama and Napolitano have reverted to the traditional practice of desperately trying to hold the line at the border against immigrant, drug and gun flows. For the Obama administration, border security encompasses a wide range of policy initiatives, including rigorously enforcing drug laws in the Southwest, involving US agencies and aid in foreign drug wars and flooding the criminal-justice system and prisons with drug users and so-called criminal aliens.
In June 2009, the Obama administration released its National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy. ONDCP director Gil Kerlikowske contended that the “new plan, combined with the dedicated efforts of the Government of Mexico, creates a unique opportunity to make real headway on the drug threat.”
Similar pronouncements have echoed throughout the past four decades of the “war on drugs.” Real headway, however, has forever eluded the US drug warriors, and is belied by the US government's own intelligence. In its National Drug Threat Assessment 2010 report, DOJ's National Drug Intelligence Center concluded that “the availability of illicit drugs in the United States is increasing.” That's despite increasing drug seizures along the Southwest border, as the same DOJ drug intelligence report documents.
The report states that “significantly more marijuana” – the most widely used illegal drug and the source of most of the income of Mexico's drug trafficking organizations – is “being smuggled into the United States from Mexico, as evidenced by the sharp rise in border seizures.”
The main measure of success for counternarcotics operations – namely drug seizures – is not closely connected with drug consumption patterns. In 2009, border agents seized nearly a half-million more kilos of marijuana than they did in 2005. The Border Patrol and ICE routinely emphasize that their operations are “risk-based.” However, the public safety and personal health risks of marijuana consumption are minimal. More than 10 percent of the US population that is 12 years or older uses marijuana.19 Marijuana is deemed beneficial by the medical profession and is legal for medicinal use in many states. Yet the Border Patrol persists in citing massive annual marijuana seizures as a chief indicator of its border security achievements.
Drug trafficking, dominated by illegal marijuana smuggling and distribution, is hardly benign. Drug prohibition policies combined with US promotion and support for drug wars have greatly contributed to the rise of organized crime in producing and transit countries. This criminalization of prohibited drugs and the militarization of counternarcotics campaigns breed horrific violence, not only among the major crime organizations, but also among gangs at the community and neighborhood levels.
Concern about the drug war to our south has provided a new boost for those calling for total border security. Further contributing to the demands for heightened border security is alarm expressed by many border security hawks about the purported threat of narcoterrorism, a term normally used by scholars and analysts to describe forces that conflate drug trafficking and political ambitions.
The steady decline of illegal immigrant flows across the southwest border since 2006 – with Border Patrol apprehensions declining from 1.2 million in 2005 to 450,000 in 2010 – has undercut the immigration arguments of border security hawks.20 But as the resonance of immigration-focused arguments for border security has diminished, border security demands couched in threat assessments about spillover violence, narcoterrorism and the drug war have come to dominate border security advocacy.
Even more loosely tied to the 9/11 impetus for border security has been the “failed state” argument for fortifying the border. Organized crime groups, which, while established to traffic drugs, have branched into an expanding array of other criminal and noncriminal operations, increasingly threaten the viability of governance in areas of Mexico and Central America, especially in Guatemala and Honduras. Citing US government threat assessments, many border security hawks contend that the United States is facing the prospect of having failed states as close neighbors and argue, therefore, that increased border security is needed to protect the country against the resulting crime and socioeconomic turmoil.
The exact correlation and configuration of forces responsible for the drug-related and organized crime violence in Mexico is difficult to discern. However, on the border, it is clear that the border security buildup contributes to the violent competition among crime groups for control over the plazas for drug smuggling and other related crime. Increased border security on the US side means increased public insecurity on the Mexican side and makes border crossing increasingly fraught with risk and violence.
Stephen Flynn, author of “America the Vulnerable: How Our Government is Failing to Protect Us from Terrorism,” calls the resulting increased border violence the “hardened border paradox.” Flynn concluded that “stepped-up enforcement along the Mexican border suggests that U.S. efforts aimed at hardening its borders can have the unintended consequence of creating the kind of environment that is conducive to terrorists and criminals,” noting how the increasingly fortified border in the 1990's raised the costs of getting into the United States while also creating “a demand for those who are in the business of arranging illegal crossings.”
The illegality at the border in this new border security era usually refers to illegal border crossers themselves, together with the coyotes (human smugglers/guides) and the organized crime bands that charge for illegal crossings. This border illegality has escalated to include bandits that prey on the border crossers and on Border Patrol agents who cross their paths.
Tightened control has made illegal crossings more difficult and more expensive. It has also turned what were previously routine, nonviolent crossings into dangerous undertakings that regularly involve dealings with criminal organizations. An indirect and certainly unintended consequence of the US border security buildup has been the increasingly violent competition between criminal organizations and gangs as they both struggle to maintain markets and trafficking corridors.
On the US side, the border security fallout is far less grave. Indeed, across the southwestern border, the buildup in border security infrastructure and personnel has injected new life into many border communities. Yet throughout the region, and throughout much of the country, the undue focus on the security of the border has skewed politics, fostered vitriol and split communities into ideological factions.
Responding to the charges by border hawks that the Border Patrol's apprehension and drug seizure statistics don't adequately measure the state of border security, Napolitano announced in early May 2011 that DHS was formulating a “new comprehensive index that will more holistically represent what is happening at the border and allow us to measure progress.” The new border security “metrics” will for the first time include measures of border area crime as well “indicators of the impact of illegal cross-border activity on the quality of life in the border region,” such as property values, environmental impacts and traffic accidents. “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.”
The ever-changing and expanding concept of border security will likely foster yet more demands for border security pork in the way of increased funding for border law enforcement and border infrastructure, regardless of what the new metrics show. The new index of border security represents a new concession to border hawks, and is yet another example of how DHS is moving further and further away from its own central mission – securing the United States and serving as an adjunct national security apparatus. The farther away we are from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the more DHS is prone to Orwellian redefinitions, such as translating security as safety. It has done this 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.
Ten Years Later
A border security juggernaut swept across the Southwest borderland, leaving in its wake new fears, insecurities and alarm. As billions of dollars are spent to increase security at the border, fear and alarm about the insecurity of the border have deepened since 9/11, along with strident demands that the government do still more.
Continuing down the same course of border security buildups, drug wars and immigration crackdowns will do nothing to increase security or safety. It will only keep border policy on the edge – teetering without direction or strategy.
Without addressing border policy in conjunction with drug policy, the drugs we consume will continue to be the product of transborder organized crime and bloodletting south of the border. Without addressing immigration reform, we face a future of immigrant bashing, divided communities, stalled economies and more immigrant prisons rising up on the edges of our towns.
Alarm about the rising federal budget deficit threatens an end to the customary large annual increases for border security and immigration enforcement, even as the failures and waste accompanying those increases become more apparent. We should welcome the new constraints on border security funding as an opportunity to allow reason and pragmatism to direct border policy instead of fear, politics and money.
Like the ill-considered occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and the “global war against terrorism,” the post-9/11 border-security buildup has drained our treasury while doing little to increase our security. The standard of success for our border policy should not be how completely sealed and secured our border is, but rather, how well it is regulated. New regulatory frameworks for immigration and drug consumption are fundamental prerequisites for a more cost-effective border policy.
Just as the Bush administration launched the “global war against terrorism” and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a burst of misguided patriotism, the administration also thrust us into a new era of “homeland” and border security with little reflection about costs and consequences. Without a clear and steady focus on the actual security threats, “homeland” and border security have devolved into wars against immigrants and drugs. Instead of prioritizing intelligence and interagency communication – the failures of which made 9/11 possible – the Bush administration, and now the Obama administration, have mounted security-rationalized crackdowns on the border and in the interior of the “homeland.”
As a result, the criminal justice system is overwhelmed, our prisons are crowded with immigrants and the flagging “war on drugs” has been given new life at home and abroad. Absent necessary strategic reflection and reform, the rush to achieve border security has bred dangerous insecurities about immigration and the integrity of our border.
It is time to rein in the border security bandwagon and to establish new regulatory frameworks for US border policy.
This is an edited excerpt of the policy report the author produced for the Center for International Policy.