The Bizarre Politics of Border Security
In the House, Democrats and Republicans have come together to pass a new border security bill, the Border Enforcement Security Task Force Act, and at the same time politicians are declaring their support for immigration reform they are insisting that border security is the foundation of any reform of immigration laws.
While U.S. immigration enforcement and deportation practices have drawn widespread criticism, there is generally uncritical support for strong border control in Congress and among the principal advocates for immigration reform.
Border security is portrayed as a matter of national security. Yet the politics of immigration reform, opportunistic criticism of the Obama administration by Republicans, and pork-barrel lobbying for more border security funding are the driving forces behind U.S. border security operations, not any considered strategy of what is needed and what works.
As the immigration reform debate begins, the politics of border security will come into play.
Border Control Strategy
Recently the Border Patrol issued its 2012-2016 Border Patrol Strategic Plan. Escalating pressure of illegal immigration flows gave rise to the Border Patrol’s first national strategy, while the perceived new threat environment after 9/11 sparked the formulation of the second strategy in 2004. In contrast, the Border Patrol has offered no convincing rationale for formulating its new national strategy.
To a large degree, the new strategy was published not because the Border Patrol does indeed have a new strategic take on border control but because of the politics of border security in America. Rather than clarifying the border security strategy, it highlights the difficulty DHS has had in defining what the newest federal bureaucracy means by “border security.” The new strategy – the third in the Border Patrol’s nine-decade history -- sheds little light on what it will cost the nation to “secure the border” and how threats to border security are assessed and prioritize.
Although the Border Patrol dates back to 1924, it wasn’t until 70 years later that the agency issued its first national strategy. The Border Patrol’s first national strategy, released in 1994, came in response to rising illegal immigration flows through the border’s main urban corridors, mainly north from Juárez and Tijuana. The 1994 “Prevention Through Deterrence” strategy called for blocking the most frequented immigration corridors with concentrated deployments of Border Patrol agents and the targeted buildup of new “tactical infrastructure” such as border walls, stadium lighting and other barriers.
As a result, illegal immigration flows would be diverted, it was argued, to more remote and difficult-to-traverse stretches of the border, thereby creating an effective disincentive for would-be immigrants.
The central objective, only partially successful, of the operations established in accordance with the first strategic plan was to diminish illegal border crossings. As intended, the number of illegal crossings through the targeted sections of the border did decline, in some areas dramatically. But new major south-north immigration corridors emerged, confounding the Border Patrol strategists.
As a result, the Border Patrol was pressed to quickly extend its “Prevention Through Deterrence” tactics to other regions of the largely rural areas of the border that had previously seen only trickles of illegal immigration. Another consequence of the 1994 deterrence strategy was the dramatic increase in horrific deaths as immigrants seeking to enter the United States illegally attempted to cross through harsh border landscapes and raging rivers.
Following the 1994 strategic plan, the Border Patrol shifted to threat-centered strategies. There is no reference to the “Prevention Through Deterrence” concept in the latest strategy statements, yet these deterrence tactics continue to guide Border Patrol operations.
The National Border Patrol Strategy of 2004, which came a year after the Border Patrol was folded into the Department of Homeland Security, marked the transition from a “border control” to a “border security” framework.
While the priority of the Border Patrol stayed the same – “to establish and maintain operational control over our Nation’s borders” – the focus of that “control” expanded to include terrorists and terrorist weapons, in addition to illegal immigrants. This new counterterrorism mission tapped military terminology – such as “operational control,” “defense-in-depth” and “situational awareness” – to describe the agency’s new strategic operations.
In introducing the first post-9/11 strategy, CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner, in 2004, tied border control goals to the Bush administration’s war against terrorism, stating, “This goal is vital to national security.”
Adopting military jargon, the Border Patrol in 2004 set forth the strategic concept of “operational control” of the border. The degree to which the Border Patrol achieved operational control would be the metric by which the progress in ensuring border security would be measured.
What Constitutes Border Security?
What precipitated the rather haphazard development of the latest strategy was not any change in what the Border Patrol calls the “threat environment” or the change in the numbers of apprehension and seizures. Instead, a political uproar associated with the performance measures associated with the 2004 report sparked the hurried production of the new strategic plan.
DHS and other Bush administration officials began referring to the Border Patrol strategy of instituting operational control over the border, particularly as part of the 2005 DHS initiative called the Secure Border Initiative (SBI). In 2006, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said that the range of SBI programs, including the new border fence and the virtual fence, would result in “operational control” of the southwest border by the end of 2010.
Pressed to show its rate of progress in “securing the border,” DHS and the Border Patrol in 2004 established a border-security schematic designed to document the varying degrees of security – descending from “effective” or full “operational control” to “managed” control, “monitored,” “low-level monitored” and “remote/low activity.” The Border Patrol based the ranking mostly on the degree of presence of personnel, infrastructure and technological surveillance, although the subjective evaluations of Border Patrol officials in each sector were also factored in.
When the Border Patrol began releasing its estimates of “operational control” in early 2010, the figures unleashed a firestorm of criticism by border security proponents. Only 13% of the 8,067 miles under Border Patrol jurisdiction were categorized as being under full or effective operational control. Along the southwest border, only 44% of the nearly 2,000 miles were ranked as being under “effective” or “managed operational control.” Along the northern border, just 2% was under operational control by 2010.
Border security hawks lambasted the Border Patrol for its failure to achieve operational control of large stretches of the southwestern border and almost the entire northern border. In turn, they escalated their demands for more fencing, more drones, more agents, more remote ground surveillance and more National Guard on the border.
The Border Patrol countered that the areas that were not under operational control were generally rugged, infrequently crossed sections of the border. While these areas did not meet the high standard of operational control – including fencing, high concentration of agents, and an array of electronic surveillance – they were constantly monitored, explained the Border Patrol.
It should be noted that the 2004 strategic plan did qualify and limit what the Border Patrol meant by operational control. According to the 2004 strategy statement, “Operational control is defined as the ability to detect, respond, and interdict border penetrations in areas deemed as high priority for threat potential or other national security objectives.” What is more, the Border Patrol acknowledged that operational control “may be limited to specific smuggling corridors or other geographically defined areas” – seemingly contradicting the grand ambition of operational control over the nation’s borders.
The Border Patrol, finding itself in a rhetorical trap of its own making, had dropped all references to “operational” or “effective” control by the end of fiscal year 2010. The concept of operational control is nowhere to be found in the 2012-2016 strategic plan. Nor is there any official explanation by DHS, CBP or the Border Patrol why this strategic framework was all but erased from official discourse.
The Operational Control Backlash
The news that half of the southwestern borderlands and nearly all of the northern border were still not under “effective control” – an inflammatory Border Patrol synonym for “operational control” – set off a firestorm of politically charged declarations criticizing the Obama administration’s lack of commitment to border security.
Republican House and Senate members introduced a flurry of bills that aimed to embarrass the administration and to leverage more border security funding. Some Democratic members, particularly those representing border districts, joined the protests about limited operational control and the demands for increased funding. Especially with borderland politicians, the expressed outrage over border security gaps was at least partially a ploy to secure new injections of border security into their districts. Such funding has functioned as a type of economic stimulus program for borderland congressional districts.
Predictably, the geographic source of much of the outrage over limited operational control and new border security legislation was Arizona. In the House, Arizona Representative Jeff Flake introduced the Border Security Enforcement Act of 2011, which, according to his office, “focused on achieving operational control of the southern US border by increasing border resources.” Arizona senators John Kyl and John McCain introduced a bill by the same name in the Senate.
In May 2012, just as the Border Patrol was preparing to release its new strategy plan, the House passed another border security bill, by unanimous voice vote, called the Secure Border Act.
The lead sponsor of the Secure Border Act was Representative Candace Miller, the Republican chair of the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security. Miller, who represents a border district in Michigan, lambasted DHS: “For far too long our nation has lacked a clear and comprehensive plan to gain and maintain operational control of the borders.” Miller tied the need for operational control of both the southern and northern borders to national security, saying: “Our common defense begins with effectively securing our borders, and the American people rightly expect and demand that the federal government take the responsibility to secure the borders.”
Over the past three years, the Obama administration has made Arizona’s border the focus of an array of new Border Patrol, Drug Enforcement Administration and federal immigration enforcement initiatives. Except for the most mountainous sections, nearly the entire Arizona border is fenced and defined by the Border Patrol as being under its operational control.
Nevertheless, the Arizona state government initiated its own Build the Border Fence project. The state government-sponsored project highlights the failure of the Obama administration to ensure that the entire border is under “operational control.
Border Security Consensus Means Less Accountability
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.
No doubt the United States needs a cogent and comprehensive policy to regulate and control its borders. But this policy should be the result of careful consideration of the country’s social, commercial and security needs – rather than being based on opportunistic politics and broken immigration and drug policies.