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What’s Wrong with Border Security?

As the U.S. Congress attempts to craft legislation to reform immigration laws, a consistent premise has been that this must be done in a way that does not reduce national security. Some in Congress have even stated that a secure border should be a prerequisite to any immigration reform.

There’s just one problem with that approach, according to former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard: “We’ve never defined what ‘secure the border’ means.”

Does it mean more border guards? Fewer apprehensions of illegals crossing over? Lower crime in U.S. towns on the border with Mexico? What benchmarks are relevant and meaningful? This issue was the topic of several recent congressional hearings and a separate discussion sponsored by the Immigration Policy Center, at which Goddard spoke.

At one congressional hearing titled “What Would a Secure Border Look Like?” Marc Rosenblum, specialist in immigration policy at the Congressional Research Service, noted that it’s not easy to select metrics or to know how to analyze them meaningfully in this context. For example, he said, “we do not know if a decline in apprehensions is a good thing, because fewer people are attempting to enter, or a bad thing, because more of them are succeeding.” Yet that is a metric that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has turned to while it tries to find a risk-based measure that works better than the previous metric of “operational control.”

The Government Accountability Office testified at the hearing that in fiscal year (FY) 2011 alone, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection division (CBP) of the DHS reported spending $4 billion to secure the border with Mexico. And Rosenblum testified that “Congress has expanded spending on border fencing, infrastructure, and technology programs from $115 million in FY2006, to a high point of $1.2 billion in FY2008, and $400 million in FY2012.” Yet one study found that only 30 percent of the drop in illegal immigration was due to increased U.S. border enforcement, he said. Most of the change was simply a reflection of changing economics on both sides of the border.

Similar concerns about wasted resources and a lack of clear thinking about what a secure border really means were raised at the Immigration Policy Center event. It was noted there that a study of relevant legislative proposals from 2006, 2007, and 2010 shows that every benchmark set has been met even though the bills did not pass. For example, the 2007 proposal called for increasing the number of border guards to 20,000. There are now more than 21,000 agents. But a rationale for such benchmarks has never been presented nor is there a means of assessing whether meeting them was worth the cost in terms of the security achieved, noted Su Kim of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who authored the study with colleague Greg Chen.

Goddard noted that the Congress, the White House, and others tend to talk only about the flow of immigrants and throwing resources like border guards at stopping that flow. “We need a larger matrix,” he said. It must include a discussion of drug smuggling and other contraband, but most important, it must address the transfer of currency back to Mexico and into the hands of cartels, which drives the cycle of immigrant and drug smuggling, because those activities continue to be so profitable.

The problem is not the individuals crossing the border but the criminal organizations that facilitate the crossing as one part of their vast criminal operations, Goddard said.

There has been some progress. As Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner for the Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition, testified before Congress, “from FY 2009 to 2012, CBP seized 71 percent more currency, 39 percent more drugs, and 189 percent more weapons along the Southwest border as compared to FY 2006 to 2008.” Furthermore, “CBP officers and agents seized more than 4.2 million pounds of narcotics and more than $100 million in unreported currency through targeted enforcement operations,” he said.

But such seizures of drugs and cash by the DHS represent only a drop in the bucket of this illicit business. As Goddard stated in a related paper on the topic, “as long as the money from drug sales and human smuggling [estimated to be upwards of $40 billion] flows to the cartels, the violence in Mexico, the sophisticated smugglers crossing our border, and the perception that nothing is being done to defend the border will continue.”

The key to stemming the flood of cash to cartels isn’t more border arrests; it is stronger enforcement of money laundering provisions. Cartels, he noted in his paper, subcontract with a wide range of financial experts in the United States who make these transactions look legitimate—the money isn’t literally being sent in bundles across a land border.

The importance of money laundering as a key to organized crime was echoed by Cecilia Malmstrom, European Commissioner for Home Affairs in a March speech on the role of anti-money laundering in the fight against organized crime. She noted that organized crime is driven by profit and that these groups have become increasingly global and sophisticated. The lesson, she said, was that the security strategy has to be “following the money” and seizing their wealth. That’s the key to dismantling the networks.

But thus far, notes Goddard, no high-level executives in financial institutions have had to face prison time for money laundering, and the fines levied have not been heavy enough to serve as a real deterrent. He noted that in the case brought against HSBC, no one went to jail. As long as it’s just a fine, he said, banks will view it as the cost of doing business.

Rather than deterring organized crime by clamping down on its ability to earn money, government efforts to make it harder for day workers to cross into the United States have simply made smuggling more lucrative, which has drawn organized crime more aggressively into the business, says David Shirk, associate professor of Political Science and International Relations and director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. Shirk also spoke at the International Policy Center event.

Another problem with how the United States is approaching security along its southern border, said Shirk, is that the U.S. government acts unilaterally and does not try to partner effectively with the Mexican government as it has with the Canadian government.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that critics just keep moving the goal post every time a metric like the number of border patrol guards is met, rather than reevaluating whether those measures make sense, said Goddard. And, he adds, what’s been lost in the discussion is whether the harm done to commerce outweighs any incremental impact on the flow of illegal immigrants.

The DHS is exploring the potential of a mix of metrics that includes more of these factors, including crime on the border, illegals caught, drug interdictions, and the like, but it has yet to find a way to do this meaningfully—and the focus seems still to be strongly on who or what is smuggled across the physical border.

It all comes back to the misperception that the border is a line in the desert, said Goddard. It’s a virtual border and the cartels are crossing it in multiple ways, including through alliances with “virtually every street gang in the United States.”

The focus on illegal immigrants has distorted the discussion and led to U.S. law enforcement resources being misdirected, he said.