What a Wall Won’t Fix on the U.S.-Mexico Border

| Todd Rosenblum
Todd Rosenblum
Former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas' Security Affairs

The assumption that a longer, higher wall along the U.S. border with Mexico will improve the nation’s security is wrong. Extending the nearly 700 miles of existing wall will help reduce the number of economic migrants entering the United States, but it will do little to stop the flow of illicit goods, dangerous people or even potential terrorists.

Real border security improvements will come when we bulk up the nation’s capacity at our nine, formal ports of entry on our southern land border. After countless trips to many of these crossings and discussions with those on the front lines, it is clear to me that we have major shortfalls in the detection and interdiction of bad things and bad people at our official border crossings.

Put simply, we have insufficient inspection capacity. We can inspect more people and goods coming into the country, but not without greatly increasing the 2-plus hours of wait time.

The economy has a say in the balance between two-way trade and security, and the bottlenecks already taking place are slowing growth and costing jobs. Two-way trade is $1.5 billion a day. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) service screens 1 million persons and 67,000 cargo containers each day, according to CBP figures.

Several customs enforcement officers told me that drug traffickers know we will only accept so many hours of delay at the crossings. They flood the zone with contraband, knowing they will lose a small percentage of their product to law enforcement.

Customs officials estimate they inspect only a small percentage of vehicles and people entering the U.S. because of the backlog in movement it causes. Most people and goods go uninspected.

The facilities we have for inspections are too small and not built for today’s volume.  This is where we need investment.  Every increment we increase in meaningful inspections means higher cost to the traffickers.

Compounding our inadequate capacity for inspection is, according to the Washington Post, an acute staffing shortage of inspectors. Head room to hire more enforcement officers exists, but actual on-boarding is exceptionally difficult.

The Congress requires all front-line inspectors to pass a polygraph exam.  Corruption is always a concern when pay is low, and the traffickers can offer large amounts in bribes. But polygraphs are not the answer.  Two of three applicants fail the polygraph exam, more than double the average failure rate for other federal law enforcement agencies, according to Anthony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employment Union. Background checks are necessary, but we should reevaluate the cost-benefit of requiring polygraphs for front-line inspectors, considering our inability to fill existing vacancies.

The flow of illegal migrants is a major disruption and poses real criminal, trespassing and safety risks to farmers, families and communities along the border. Blocking easy illegal entry in dense areas between official ports of entry makes sense. The Congress recognized this when it passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006, authorizing construction of physical and other barriers in areas where migrant flows could be stemmed by this method.

President Donald Trump’s Executive Order of Jan. 25, 2017, calls for extending the length of the wall to 1,000 miles to achieve “operational control,” of the entire border that prevents “all unlawful entries into the United States. An analysis published by the MIT Technology Review estimates the cost of a 1,000-mile wall at this new, higher standard would total $40 billion.

Border Patrol agents agree that well-placed fencing reduces the flow of illegal migrants and makes American border communities safer. But they also agree that the vast majority of the people crossing between the ports of entry are economic migrants, not drug traffickers coming north or gun runners going south.

Border integrity is vital and an important element of border security.  But the emphasis on more fencing focuses our finite resource on economic migrants filling vacant jobs in the U.S.

To reduce significant security threats to the homeland, we should prioritize who and what we are trying to stop. An important element in any new border security deal should give some temporary entrance status to economic migrants so they could safely and securely do their jobs and cross back to their families.

Conducting background checks and issuing biometric entry cards for temporary crossers would greatly increase our homeland security. The result would:

  • free inspectors to focus more on cargo and persons of interest at the border.
  • decrease the volume of illegal crossers between the POEs.
  • save lives, since the crossing is dangerous.
  • reduce trespassing and physical damage to private property in border communities
  • deprive human traffickers of money they demand that migrants pay them for the right to illegally enter the U.S.
  • improve human dignity.

We also need to increase our ability to prevent drug trafficking through various mail services. The New York Times reported recently that Guatemala’s Ipala Cartel ships heroin through the mail, UPS and FedEx. Diverting funds to wall building does not address this vulnerability.

And while we cannot rule out the possibility that terrorist organizations will partner with transnational organized crime groups, we must not overstate this likelihood either. There is little evidence that organized crime in North and South America works with terrorist organizations. The evidence we do have shows the contrary to be true. Trafficking organizations and gangs used their standard signaling techniques in 2011 to indicate that Iranian intelligence and terrorist groups were not welcome in their business space, following Tehran’s bungled plot to smuggle a terrorist into the U.S. across the Mexican border.

Drug traffickers and transnational criminal organizations exist to make money.  Collaborating with terrorist groups is terrible for business. It would bring the full force of our counterterrorism capabilities to bear. Mexico has a core interest in proving to be a safe place to invest and receive tourists. It has strong counterterrorism standards.

Our nation’s debate on immigration is framed as a debate on border security. Yet too often the two elements are confused.

The best thing we can do for those on the front lines is to take off the table the distraction of catching temporary, economic migrants, so that law enforcement and border security officials can focus more time and energy on inspecting vehicles and containers, and persons wanting to enter the nation without prior approval. That is border security.

The Author is Todd Rosenblum

Todd M. Rosenblum served as President Obama’s Acting Assistant Secretary and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs at the Pentagon, as well as Deputy Under Secretary of Intelligence for Plans, Policy, and Performance Management at the Department of Homeland Security. Over the course of a 27-year career, Rosenblum held positions with the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Department of State, and began his... Read More

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