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With the Resurrection of Immigration Reform We'll Hear a Lot About Securing Our Borders, But What Does It Really Mean?

It’s rare to hear a politician speak favorably of immigration reform without the requisite nod to border security.

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Securing the Border Against Foreign Terrorists

The Border Patrol asserts that its main mission is to protect the homeland against terrorists and terrorist weapons. The joint mission of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Border Patrol states:

We are the guardians of our Nation’s borders. We are America’s frontline. We safeguard the American homeland at and beyond our borders. We protect the American public against terrorists and the instruments of terror.

Inexplicably, the agency has never included terrorism protection as a performance indicator. Nor has the Border Patrol offered any evidence that its “intelligence-driven” border security programs actually focus on terrorists and terrorist networks. 

One likely reason the Border Patrol does not address its counterterrorism in any detail is that the agency’s border security buildup on the southwestern border has not resulted in the apprehension of members of foreign terrorist organizations, as identified by the State Department.

Experts in counterterrorism agree there is little risk that foreign terrorist organizations would rely on illegal border crossings – particularly across the U.S.-Mexico border –  for entry into the United States. While the fear that foreign terrorists would illegally cross U.S. land borders drove much of the early build-up in border security programs under the newly created homeland security department, counterterrorism seems to have dropped off the actual and rhetorical focus of today’s border security operations.

Indicative of this reduced focus on terrorism and return to the traditional focus on illegal immigration and illegal drugs is found in the recently released  2012-2016 Border Patrol Strategic Plan. There is only one reference to terrorism in the new strategy’s executive summary. In contrast, the previous Border Patrol Strategy, issued in September 2004, has 13 such references.

The Border Patrol offers no explanation for this stunning change in focus. Counterterrorism is still cited as the overarching goal of CBP, yet there is little in the new strategy statement to demonstrate this strategic focus.

From Terrorists to Transnational Criminals

As cross-border terrorism has faded as a homeland security concern, the Border Patrol has shifted the focus of its threat assessments to transnational criminal organizations based in Mexico. What formerly were called drug trafficking organizations by the federal government are now labeled TCOs. Although never mentioned previously, the Border Patrol over the past three years has warned of the threat posed by TCOs to border security.

Unfortunately, the Border Patrol has supported its escalated threat assessments about TCOs by counting the arrests of all drug couriers as blows to the TCOs, implying or stating that immigrants and other illegal border crossers carrying varying amounts of marijuana (or in rare cases other illegal drugs) are “transnational criminals.” 

Since the creation of DHS, CBP, together with ICE, have also attempted to demonstrate that immigration and drug enforcement at the border and elsewhere is “risk-based.” Yet rather than prioritizing focusing their intelligence gathering on likely foreign threats to the borders, the post-9/11 border security apparatus has quickly returned to its traditional targeting of illegal drugs and unauthorized immigrants as “dangerous goods and people,” while recklessly labeling illegal border crossers as part of the operations of Mexican criminal organizations.

The Border Patrol should, as part of its risk-based and intelligence-driven strategy, maintain a near-exclusive focus on the TCO hierarchies and their enforcers. Likewise, the Border Patrol should end its characterization of all drug-trade networks as TCOs but instead focus on those designated as TCOs by the State Department.

CBP, ICE and the Border Patrol have also used its post-9/11 commitment to risk-based enforcement to shift many immigrants into criminal categories, such as “criminal aliens”  and “fugitive aliens.”

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