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The Bizarre Politics of Border Security

The border security hawks are circling again.

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.

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