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Border security 10 years after 9/11

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2011

Policy Perspectives

Border Warriors

Border security 10 years after 9/11: Wasteful policy
fueling new drug wars

by Tom Barry


Introduction: Over the past several years, Tom Barry has traveled the Southwest border from Texas through Arizona tracking the post-9/11 security anxiety. Barry, who lives in a largely self-constructed (with lots of help from friends) passive-solar, straw-bale home in Pinos Altos with life partner Deb Preusch and their two daughters Alex and Taylor, has been writing on border issues and US-Mexico relations since the late 1970s.

In his recently released book Border Wars (MIT Press), Barry offers a vivid profile of a US borderland that has become a staging ground for the latest front in the four-decades-old drug war, the economic beneficiary of a vast increase in "border security" funding, and the home of a new gulag of private immigrant prisons (such as the two in Otero county just north of El Paso).

Some see rogue states like Arizona and Texas as a model for the nation in their go-it-alone posturing and tough immigration-enforcement talk. In Border Wars, dogged investigative journalist Tom Barry documents the costs of that model: lives lost; families torn apart; billions of wasted tax dollars; vigilantes prowling the desert; and fiscal crises in cities, counties and states.

As Barry explains, the lack of coherent federal policy on immigration and drug war conduct and the uncritical embrace of all things in the name of national security has opened doors for opportunists from boardrooms to governors' offices. Corporate-prison magnates eagerly swallow up undocumented immigrants into taxpayer-funded dungeons, border sheriffs and politicians trade on voters' fears of Latinos and "big government," and pro-business policy institutes and lobbyists battle the public interest.

Border Wars offers a stark portrait of the domestic cost of failed federal leadership in the post-9/11 era.

Tom Barry, senior policy analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC, is author of many books, including The Great Divide and Zapata's Revenge. His article "A Death in Texas" was a finalist for a 2010 National Magazine Award for reporting in the public interest. He blogs at borderlinesblog.blogspot.com.


As a border state, New Mexico has been blessedly free of the anti-immigrant vigilantism and the ranting of border hawks that have agitated Texas and Arizona. Over the past year, however, Governor Susana Martinez has deviated from this tradition with fearmongering about border security and new scapegoating of immigrants for crime and traffic accidents. This plays to her conservative base but has met staunch popular and policy-community resistance.

border policy
Fences and vehicle barriers now line the Southwest border.
(Photos by Tom Barry)

Like its neighbors, New Mexico has benefited from an infusion of border security funding and infrastructure projects. Since 2005, when the Bush administration launched its Secure Border Initiative and the immigrant crackdown began in earnest, the New Mexico border has had a security makeover. A stark 18-foot-high steel fence rises for five miles on either side of the Columbus-Palomas port-of-entry, picking up again west of the Santa Teresa POE and continuing east past El Paso and beyond Ft. Hancock. A vehicle barrier now protects most of the Bootheel's border with Mexico. The tiny, scarcely used Antelope Wells POE received a $1.5 million upgrade with federal stimulus funding.

Hidden in the remote Bootheel is one of the nation's chief homeland security, border security and counterterrorism training centers. The Playas Training and Research Center brings together most branches of the expanding post-9/11 homeland security apparatus, including the various agencies of the Department of Homeland Security, the military and the drug war agencies of the Justice Department, as well as the state's own local and state law enforcement agencies — all under the auspices of New Mexico Tech in Socorro, which now promotes its expertise in the "science of security." Eager to cash in on the homeland security/border security boom with its multibillion surge in DOD, DHS and DOJ grants, New Mexico Tech established the Border Security Center (BORSEC) for Research, Education, Training and Technical Assistance "to aid in countering border violence." Meanwhile, border area crime continues to fall, and state and federal officials are hard put to document where all this US border violence is.

The Grant County Sheriff's Office is one of the most unlikely beneficiaries of border security funding, through the DHS Stonegarden Program that funds overtime pay and equipment purchases for border law enforcement. While Grant County doesn't touch the border, it qualifies for annual grants approaching $1 million, which has enabled the county to purchase new vehicles, including a barely used state-of-the-art mobile crime lab, and ply the department with overtime pay for deputies who make the two-hour trip to the Bootheel to patrol the road that passes through Hachita. The result has been a major uptick in traffic tickets, as well as an occasional apprehension of an illegal immigrant or two.

Undoubtedly, the border security boom has been good for Grant County and other parts of the greater borderlands. But there is little evidence that, as the sheriff's department attests in its quarterly reports to DHS, the department "has been successful in counteracting the ravages and terror of human smuggling, drug smuggling, destruction of property and associated criminal activities." There are few questions and no evaluation about the border security program in Grant County, or anywhere else, because border security is one of the few federal programs that enjoys bipartisan political support, particularly from border politicians eager to see more federal dollars flow into their region.


Border Security Is Born

Prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the term "border security" was rarely used. Today, however, it is both a fundamental goal of US domestic security 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."

Border security constitutes the single largest line item in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) budget. Nonetheless, DHS has failed to develop a border security strategy that complements US domestic and national security objectives. DHS has not even attempted to delineate benchmarks that would measure the security of the border or specify exactly how the massive border security buildup has increased homeland security.

In its strategic plan, DHS does promise: "We will reduce the likelihood that terrorists can enter the United States. We will strengthen our border security and gain effective control of our borders." And DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano assured us last year that, as a result of new border security spending by the Obama administration, "the Southwest border is more secure than ever before."

Since 2003, Homeland Security and the Justice Department have opened spigots of funding for an array of border security operations. These include commitments for 18-foot steel fencing, high-tech surveillance, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), increased prosecutions of illegal border crossers and new deployments of the Border Patrol and National Guard.

Yet the federal government's continued expressions of its commitment to border security serve only to highlight the shortcomings of this commitment and to spark opposition to long- overdue immigration reform. "Secure the border" — a political demand echoed by immigration restrictionists, grassroots anti-immigrant activists and a chorus of politicians — now resounds as a battle cry against the federal government and liberal immigration reformers. 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. Border sheriffs, militant activists and state legislatures are even taking border security into their own hands.

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. Yet these new commitments to control the border have been largely expressions of public diplomacy rather than manifestations of new thinking about the border.

Despite the border security buildups and $100 billion spent along the southwestern border, no terrorists or terrorist weapons have been seized. DHS does point out, however, that every year it regularly apprehends illegal border crossers from countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism. Border security hawks point to these arrests of citizens from "special interest countries" as evidence that the "broken border" keeps Americans vulnerable and that the border should be completely sealed.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Border Patrol adapted its rhetoric to reflect its recently acquired "homeland" security mission. While the Border Patrol had occasionally referred to "securing the border" in the past, the use of the term "border security" gained prevalence only over the past decade. References to border security and border insecurity not only shape discourse about the border, but also about immigration, drug policy, US-Mexico relations and domestic security.

Border regulation and control have effectively been upgraded to a national security mission. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the DHS agency that oversees the Border Patrol, states that its "top priority is to keep terrorists and their weapons from entering the United States." In keeping with its new status as a quasi-national security agency, the CBP contends that it is securing the nation against "dangerous people and goods."


National Policy Gone Awry

The diversity of life in the Southwest has long been a point of pride, especially for those in communities along the border. Public officials and citizen leaders have boasted of the region's binational culture, transborder communities and families, spicy food and easy mix of English and Spanish.

border policy
Otero County is now home to two privately run immigration prisons.

For many vocal borderlanders, especially in Texas and Arizona, however, their borderland status is no longer a common boast or esteemed asset, but rather a liability — and another cause for griping about Washington and big government. Proximity to the border has been the source of a new politic of indignation, outrage and resentment as deepening concerns about spillover violence, public safety threats and immigration flows have produced a sense of vulnerability and stirred deep resentment.

It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss the extreme and often bizarre embrace of the politics of border security as merely a regional affair. The fevered politics of border security taps insecurities, fears, resentment, prejudices and uncertainties felt throughout the nation to varying degrees. The proliferation of immigrant prisons along the border, the defiant creation of a "Texas model of border security," border vigilantism and Arizona's anti-immigrant legislation, while often politically motivated and reeking of opportunism, underscore the inadequacies of the federal government's border, drug and immigration policies.

In adopting the border security rhetoric following 9/11, the federal government raised unrealistic expectations that the border can indeed be sealed and secured. But never in our nation's history have we actually controlled our 1,963-mile border with Mexico. Contraband and non-authorized crossings have been a constant of border life, not a recent development.

Instead, border policy has been propelled by ambiguous annual statistics on arrests and seizures offered by the Border Patrol to justify budget increases. Year after year, decade after decade, border progress has been measured by the number of illegal aliens apprehended, the number deported and the millions of pounds of illegal drugs seized. When the numbers surge higher, this is cited as clear evidence of success. When numbers are lower, the Border Patrol also claims victory, pointing to the decline as evidence of the success of its strategy to prevent illegal entry through deterrence.

This heads-you-win, tails-you-win trick of tracking border progress continues today, albeit with variations. Regular reports of the numbers of criminal aliens imprisoned and deported compose part of the litany of Border Patrol and Immigration and Custom Enforcement's (ICE) great achievements. The rising number of immigrants labeled as criminal aliens and the number of imprisoned immigrants slated for removal are offered as data to support the DHS's contention of its progress toward protecting the border from potential terrorists and criminals.

Instead of controlling the border, US 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.


The Big Tent of Border Security

The elevated rhetoric — from "control" to "security" — has succeeded in focusing national attention on the border and vastly increasing funding flows. But the new national commitment to border security has not resulted in a more focused, strategic border policy.

On the contrary, the most remarkable feature of border security is how elastic the meaning and use of the term has been over the past 10 years. Border security has become a big tent accommodating not only the post-9/11 border-related national security and homeland security initiatives, but also the traditional operations that target illegal immigrants and illegal goods, mostly drugs.

Immediately after 9/11, border security was associated primarily with counterterrorism and domestic security, but the association was short-lived. The new security framing of immigration and border control empowered restrictionists and the grassroots anti-immigrant backlash movement with a powerful new argument to seal the border and deport illegal immigrants. At the same time that the anti-immigration camps began gathering new forces, the pro-immigration movement and immigrant-rights advocates began to mobilize to pass a comprehensive immigration reform that included legalization.

In the midst of the ensuing national debate, the border security bandwagon gained traction. While the two sides were sharply divided on legalization, common ground emerged around proposals to increase immigration enforcement and border security. Soon, border security became synonymous with upholding public safety in the US borderlands, halting the flow of US weapons into Mexico, supporting the drug war in Mexico and breaking up transborder criminal organizations.


Serving New Drug Wars

In late March 2009, in response to rising alarm about drug-related violence in Mexico, Napolitano announced the launch of DOJ's Southwest Border Initiative. This continuing initiative, described as a US-centered adjunct to the State Department's counternarcotics aid to Mexico through the Mérida Initiative, is loaded with border security language.

Rather than deciding that the surge of drug-related violence in Mexico was another reason to re-evaluate the 40 years of failed drug-control policies, the Obama administration has reaffirmed US support for the military-led drug war in Mexico. The administration has also made a major public display of its determination to increase and redeploy DHS and DOJ resources to bolster border security.

In June 2009, the Obama administration released its National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, contended that the "new plan, combined with the dedicated efforts of the Government of Mexico, creates a unique opportunity to make real headway on the drug threat."

Similar pronouncements have echoed throughout the past four decades of the "war on drugs." Real headway, however, has forever eluded the US drug warriors, and is belied by the US government's own intelligence. In its National Drug Threat Assessment 2010 report, DOJ's National Drug Intelligence Center concluded that "the availability of illicit drugs in the United States is increasing."

The main measure of success for counternarcotics operations — namely drug seizures — is not closely connected with drug consumption patterns. In 2009, border agents seized nearly a half-million more kilos of marijuana than they did in 2005. The Border Patrol and ICE routinely emphasize that their operations are "risk-based." But the actual public safety and personal health risks of marijuana consumption are minimal.

Drug trafficking, dominated by illegal marijuana smuggling and distribution, is hardly benign, however. Drug prohibition policies combined with US promotion and support for drug wars have greatly contributed to the rise of organized crime in producing and transit countries. This criminalization of prohibited drugs and the militarization of counternarcotics campaigns breed horrific violence, not only among the major crime organizations, but also among gangs at the community and neighborhood levels.

Concern about the drug war to our south has provided a new boost for those calling for total border security. Further contributing to the demands for heightened border security is alarm expressed by many border security hawks about the purported threat of narcoterrorism, a term normally used by scholars and analysts to describe forces that conflate drug trafficking and political ambitions.

The steady decline of illegal immigrant flows across the southwest border since 2006 — with Border Patrol apprehensions declining from 1.2 million in 2005 to 450,000 in 2010 — has undercut the immigration arguments of border security hawks. But as the resonance of immigration-focused arguments for border security has diminished, border security demands couched in threat assessments about spillover violence, narcoterrorism and the drug war have come to dominate border security advocacy.

Even more loosely tied to the 9/11 impetus for border security has been the "failed state" argument for fortifying the border. Organized crime groups, which, while established to traffic drugs, have branched into an expanding array of other criminal and noncriminal operations, increasingly threaten the viability of governance in areas of Mexico and Central America, especially in Guatemala and Honduras. Citing US government threat assessments, many border security hawks contend that the United States is facing the prospect of having failed states as close neighbors and argue, therefore, that increased border security is needed to protect the country against the resulting crime and socioeconomic turmoil.

Tightened control has made illegal crossings more difficult and more expensive. It has also turned what were previously routine, nonviolent crossings into dangerous undertakings that regularly involve dealings with criminal organizations. An indirect and certainly unintended consequence of the US border security buildup has been the increasingly violent competition between criminal organizations and gangs as they both struggle to maintain markets and trafficking corridors.

On the US side, the border security fallout is far less grave. Indeed, across the southwestern border, the buildup in border security infrastructure and personnel has injected new life into many border communities. Yet throughout the region, and throughout much of the country, the undue focus on the security of the border has skewed politics, fostered vitriol and split communities into ideological factions.


Ten Years Later

A border security juggernaut has swept across the Southwest borderland, leaving in its wake new fears, insecurities and alarm. As billions of dollars are spent to increase security at the border, fear and alarm about the insecurity of the border have deepened since 9/11, along with strident demands that the government do still more.

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 an 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.

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.

Just as the Bush administration launched the "global war against terrorism" and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a burst of misguided patriotism, that administration also thrust us into a new era of "homeland" and border security with little reflection about costs and consequences. Without a clear and steady focus on the actual security threats, "homeland" and border security have devolved into wars against immigrants and drugs.

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 insecurities about immigration and the integrity of our border.

It is time to rein in the border security bandwagon and to establish new regulatory frameworks for US border policy.


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