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Last Updated:6/17/11


Policy on the Edge:

Failures of Border Security and New Directions for Border Control


America’s 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 drug traffickers.

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 crackdowns.


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 Patrol deployment.

Ten Years After

Ten years after our rush to secure our borders, it is time to review, evaluate and change course.

Despite 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 “homeland.”

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.


Policy Recommendations

Ten-year evaluation of border security
The integration of our border and immigration agencies into the sprawling homeland security bureaucracy should be reconsidered.

Calibrate the 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 high-tech solutions
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 funding
Congress should impose a moratorium on all new border funding, whether for security or for trade.

End drug prohibition and drug wars
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 immigration reform
President Obama and congressional leaders should set forth a new vision of immigration reform.



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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