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The Bizarre Politics of Border Security

The border security hawks are circling again.

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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.

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