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Border Security After 9/11: Wasteful Policy Fueling New Drug Wars

The criminal justice system is overwhelmed, our prisons are crowded with immigrants, and the flagging "war on drugs" has been given new life at home and abroad.
 
 
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 Prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks, the term "border security" was rarely used. Today, however, it is both a fundamental goal of US domestic security and the defining paradigm for border operations. Despite the federal government's routine declarations of its commitment to securing the border, neither Congress nor the executive branch has ever clearly defined the term "border security."

Border security constitutes the single largest line item in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) budget. Nonetheless, DHS has failed to develop a border security strategy that complements US domestic and national security objectives. DHS has not even attempted to delineate benchmarks that would measure the security of the border or specify exactly how the massive border security buildup has increased homeland security.

In its strategic plan, DHS does promise: "We will reduce the likelihood that terrorists can enter the United States. We will strengthen our border security and gain effective control of our borders." And DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano assured us last year that, as a result of new border security spending by the Obama administration, "the Southwest border is more secure than ever before."

Since 2003, Homeland Security and the Justice Department have opened spigots of funding for an array of border security operations. These include commitments for 18-foot steel fencing, high-tech surveillance, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), increased prosecutions of illegal border crossers and new deployments of the Border Patrol and National Guard.

Yet the federal government's continued expressions of its commitment to border security only serve to highlight the shortcomings of this commitment and to spark opposition to long- overdue immigration reform. "Secure the border" - a political demand echoed by immigration restrictionists, grassroots anti-immigrant activists and a chorus of politicians - now resounds as a battle cry against the federal government and liberal immigration reformers. These border security hawks charge that the federal government is failing to meet its responsibility to secure the border, pointing to continued illegal crossings by immigrants and drug traffickers. Border sheriffs, militant activists and state legislatures have even started taking border security into their own hands.

The post-9/11 imperative of securing "the homeland" set off a widely played game of one-upmanship that has had Washington, border politicians and sheriffs, political activists and vigilantes competing to be regarded as the most serious and hawkish on border security. The emotions and concerns unleashed by the 9/11 attacks exacerbated the long-running practice of using the border security issue to further an array of political agendas - immigration crackdowns, border pork-barrel projects, drug wars, states' rights and even liberal immigration reform. Yet these new commitments to control the border have been largely expressions of public diplomacy rather than manifestations of new thinking about the border.

In his groundbreaking 2001 study of border enforcement, "Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide," border scholar Peter Andreas rightly observed that border policing has "some of the features of a ritualized spectator sport," noting that the game metaphor reflects the "performance and audience-driven nature" of the politics of border control. As the politics of border security in Texas and Arizona so well illustrate, "secure the border" is a rallying cry that energizes constituencies, catapults politicians to office and produces a steady stream of Fox News appearances for prominent border security hawks. It also diverts the debate over border policies far away from any reflective discussion of the structural causative factors producing the border crisis.

Despite the border security buildups and $100 billion spent along the southwestern border, no terrorists or terrorist weapons have been seized. DHS does point out, however, that every year it regularly apprehends illegal border crossers from countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism. Those apprehended are mostly from Cuba, with single digit numbers from Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. Border security hawks point to these arrests of citizens from "special interest countries" as evidence that the "broken border" keeps Americans vulnerable and that the border should be completely sealed.