on the Edge:
of Border Security and New Directions for Border Control
national security apparatus got a major boost, both at home and abroad, after
the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The declared “global war on terror”
led to the foreign military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. At home, the
Bush administration created and heavily funded the Department of Homeland
Security (DHS), committed to the new goal of achieving “border security.”
Prior to 9/11,
the term border security was rarely used. Today, however, it is both a
fundamental goal of U.S. homeland security—constituting the single
largest line item in the DHS budget—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,” and DHS has
failed to develop a border security strategy that complements U.S. homeland and
national security objectives.
In adopting the border security rhetoric following 9/11,
the federal government raised unrealistic expectations that the border can
indeed be sealed and secured—something that has never been accomplished
in our nation’s history. Yet, immigration restrictionists,
grassroots anti-immigrant activists and a chorus of politicians now use “secure
our border” as a battle cry against the federal government and liberal
immigration reformers. Even as Obama administration sinks ever more funding into
DHS and the Department of Justice for border security, 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
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.
By mixing border control, drug enforcement, immigration
regulation and counterterrorism, DHS preempted the
possibility of maintaining a sharp focus on foreign and domestic terrorism
threats. While spending most of its resources on immigrant- and drug-related
enforcement, DHS failed to mount the intelligence operations needed to track
the rise of domestic terrorists and has not functioned as a much-needed
clearinghouse for domestic and foreign counterterrorism intelligence. This
muddling of the border security mission also accounts for the waste of federal
homeland security resources and empowers border politicians like Texas Governor
Rick Perry and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, together with allied border
sheriffs, to mount their own border security operations and immigration
Instead of controlling the border, U.S. drug and
immigration policies are the major contributing factors to the persistent
patterns of illegal border crossings. An effective border control strategy
must, at the very least, recognize these causal policy factors and address
possible fixes—not simply address the repercussions of these failed
policies with the traditional fixes of stricter immigration enforcement,
increased border militarization, strengthened barriers and increased Border
Ten Years After
Ten years after our rush to secure our borders, it is time
to review, evaluate and change course.
massive expenditures and the new commitment to "border security," our
border policy remains unfocused and buffeted by political forces. In the
absence of a sharp strategic focus, the management of the U.S.-Mexico border
continues to be the victim of the problems and pressures created by our failed
immigration and drug policies.
Continuing down the same course of border security
buildups, drug wars and immigration crackdowns will do nothing to increase
security or safety. It will only
keep border policy on the edge—teetering without direction or strategy.
Without addressing border policy in conjunction with drug
policy, the drugs we consume will continue to be the product of transborder organized crime and bloodletting south of the
border. Without addressing immigration reform, we face a future of immigrant
bashing, divided communities, stalled economies and more immigrant prisons
rising up on the edges of our towns.
Alarm about the rising federal budget deficit threatens to
end to the customary large annual increases for border security and immigration
enforcement, even as the failures and waste accompanying those increases become
more apparent. We should welcome the new constraints on border security funding
as an opportunity to allow reason and pragmatism to direct border policy instead
of fear, politics and money.
Like the ill-considered occupations of Iraq and
Afghanistan and the “global war against terrorism,” the post-9/11
border-security buildup has drained our treasury while doing little to increase
our security. The standard of success for our border policy should not be how
completely sealed and secured our border is, but rather, how well it is
regulated. New regulatory frameworks for immigration and drug consumption are
fundamental prerequisites for a more cost-effective border policy.
Without a clear and steady focus on the actual security
threats, homeland security and border security have devolved into wars against
immigrants and drugs. Instead of prioritizing intelligence and inter-agency
communication—whose failures made 9/11 possible—the Bush
administration and now the Obama administration have mounted
security-rationalized crackdowns on the border and in the interior of the
As a result, 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. Absent necessary strategic reflection
and reform, the rush to achieve border security has bred dangerous paranoia
about immigration and the integrity of our border.
Ten years after the federal government undertook a new
commitment to homeland security and border security, the nation deserves to
know what the tens of billions of dollars spent on securing the southwestern
border have accomplished. Before more tax dollars are dedicated to border
security, we need new policy frameworks for immigration and illegal drugs that
disaggregate these issues from homeland and national security.
The new security rhetoric has not been accompanied by more
narrowly and strategically focused border operations. Instead, illegal
immigrants and illegal drugs are the continuing target of the border security
buildup. “Policy on the Edge”
concludes with eight recommendations for a more effective, more sharply focused
and less expensive U.S. border policy.
Ten-year evaluation of
The integration of our border and immigration agencies
into the sprawling homeland security bureaucracy should be reconsidered.
security/trade balance of border policy
Rather than primarily being driven by political and pork-barrel imperatives, border policy should better reflect
the identity of the border as both a barrier and a nexus.
Step back, don’t rush
DHS should put the brakes on its high-tech programs for border security, which
have proved hugely expensive and deeply flawed.
Moratorium on new border
Congress should impose a moratorium on all new border funding, whether for
security or for trade.
End drug prohibition and
The United States should overhaul its drug policies.
Terminate collaboration in
border and immigration enforcement
The Obama administration should terminate programs that promote nonfederal
collaboration in border control and immigration enforcement operations.
Stop associating border
security funding with immigration reform
The Obama administration must end the practice of promising border security as
a condition of immigration reform.
Setting forth a new vision of
President Obama and congressional leaders should set forth a new vision of
About the author: Tom
Barry is the director of CIP’s TransBorder project. Barry specializes in immigration policy, homeland security,
border security and the outsourcing of national security. Barry’s latest
book is Border Wars,
forthcoming from MIT Press in September 2011. He blogs at
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