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Feature 102510 INS-Buxbaum

Monday, October 25, 2010

New Strategies Needed to Fix the Broken US-Mexico Border

By Peter Buxbaum

Late this summer US President Barack Obama signed legislation that would provide an additional $600 million for a legion of new border agents, several new border stations and additional unmanned surveillance drones along the US-Mexico border. Congress returned to Washington from its August recess and rammed the bill through in little more than a week.

Congress' hurry-up play provides a clue to the motivations behind the measure. With the legislature deadlocked over a comprehensive immigration reform bill that could provide a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal aliens living in the US, Congress opted for an election-year stunt aimed at providing bragging rights but which will do little to resolve the complex problems of immigration, smuggling and crime that plague the southern border.

More of the same

Congress' approach to the problem is nothing new. For 20 years, it has followed the mantra of 'securing the border first' as a way of avoiding the deeper and broader issues tied up with immigration.

But there is mounting evidence that the border-first policy has reached the point of diminishing returns. Immigration laws and policies of the past two decades have made the border less safe and have benefited the traffickers and smugglers who operate along it. A growing number of voices are clamoring for a comprehensive strategy which would reform immigration policies, while simultaneously addressing the criminal issues that are at the heart of border violence.

"The Border Patrol has doubled to 20,000 agents, there are also more than 3,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, 1,500 National Guard troops, and a significant surge in the number of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms personnel," David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, told the ISN. "However, border security advocates say that this is still not enough."

Another case in point of the broken border system: in March, the US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano ended construction of the 'virtual fence' that was intended to nab illegal border-crossers using cameras, radar and ground sensors. The project has been "plagued with cost overruns and missed deadlines," Napolitano said, according to a report in The Christian Science Monitor. The unfinished fence has cost $2.4 billion, and would require another $6.5 billion to maintain over the next 20 years.

The US is "pursuing a lopsided approach of border-enforcement only and placing the highest priority on prosecuting nonviolent border-crossers rather than dangerous criminals," Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council, a Washington-based advocacy group, told the ISN.

A report undertaken by the University of California earlier this year studied the still-existing Bush-era immigration enforcement program called Operation Streamline. The study found that the program targets migrant workers with no criminal history and has caused skyrocketing caseloads in many federal district courts along the border. The report "demonstrates that Operation Streamline diverts crucial law enforcement resources away from fighting violent crime along the border and fails to effectively reduce undocumented immigration."

Before Operation Streamline, border agents routinely turned back first-time border crossers. Prosecutors reserved the criminal courts for those with criminal records. The removal of this prosecutorial discretion has led to "unprecedented caseloads in eight of the eleven federal district courts along the border, straining the resources of judges, US attorneys, defense attorneys, US Marshals, and court personnel." Sometimes magistrates conduct hearings en masse, accepting 80 guilty pleas at a time, a procedure which has since been ruled unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, resources have been removed from prosecuting higher-level offenses. White-collar, weapons, organized crime, public corruption and drug prosecutions have all declined under Operation Streamline.

Focusing court and law enforcement resources on the prosecution of first-time entrants has pushed "immigrants straight into the arms of criminal cartels," Jennifer Bernal Garcia, a researcher at the Center for New American Security, a Washington think tank, told the ISN. "There hasn't been enough of a focus placed on prosecution and enforcement measures against criminal cartels."

This has "encouraged drug trafficking organizations to evolve from relatively small-scale, low-level operations in the 1980s into the highly sophisticated, heavily-armed criminal organizations that are today, seriously undermining the Mexican state," said Shirk. "The flow of drugs and immigrants continues practically unabated, despite these very costly investments in border security."

The heart of the matter

All of which point to the need to address both criminality and immigration. "We have entered into a free trade agreement with Mexico that allows the flow of goods and capital, but we have not figured out how to manage labor," said Shirk. "Two-hundred thousand people were apprehended at the border last year and 200 were found to have criminal histories. In my view, we need to figure out how to get the 99 percent of people who don't pose a threat out of the way through work-visa programs or other means. This would make the Border Patrol's job much easier."

"We must think beyond the border," added Garcia. "Going after scapegoats at the border does nothing to change or deter the criminal element. What is needed along the border is a coordinated strategy among federal agencies and foreign governments, not incremental acts and feel-good deployments. Such a broad strategy would focus on reducing criminal groups' ability to violently contest state authority, both by diminishing the sources of their proceeds, drugs and their social base, through a mix of regional law enforcement and social programs."

And there remains the question about what to do with the estimated 11 million unlawful immigrants who continue to reside in the US. "Additional budget increases for immigration enforcement programs will not significantly reduce the size of that population absent other changes to immigration laws," noted a recent report from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank.

"There will always be criminals and inadmissible migrants seeking to take advantage of a lengthy land border," the CAP report concluded. "The question for policymakers is what the best strategy is to minimize violence and illegal immigration. Waiting for an airtight border to solve our immigration problems would be an unrealistic, impractical, and unsuccessful strategy."


Peter A Buxbaum, a Washington, DC-based independent journalist, has been writing about defense, security, business and technology for 15 years. His work has appeared in publications such as Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Information Week, Defense Technology International, Homeland Security and Computerworld. His website is www.buxbaum1.com.

This article was originally published by ISN Insights (Oct. 18, 2010).  The International Relations and Security Network (ISN) is a free public service that provides a wide range of high-quality and comprehensive products and resources to encourage the exchange of information among international relations and security professionals worldwide.  Reprinted with permission from ISN.

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