The Bizarre Politics of Border Security
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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.