America's Inefficient and Ineffective Approach to Border Security

Border fence

Last week, the Senate refused to approve the DREAM Act, a bill that would have offered a path to citizenship for children brought into the country illegally if they attend college or serve in the military. Opponents stated that no immigration reform will happen without first "securing" the 1,951 mile U.S. border with Mexico. America's current approach to border security is wasteful and ineffective, and "securing the border" will never be achieved until we redefine our approach to, and definition of, border security. With many in Washington expressing concern about fiscal responsibility, reining in the billions wasted annually on current border security policies should really be a priority. But America's xenophobic preoccupation with an "invasion" by brown-skinned "illegals" may keep us pursuing an expensive and unreasonable approach to border security.

As we have previously reported, the U.S. Border Patrol within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been given access to billions of taxpayer dollars to pursue the logistically impossible "border security" mandate. In part because "border security" is popular with some segments of the population, the agency has been permitted to operate with little effective oversight and with little that demonstrates its expenditures are effective or wise. The Border Patrol's "prevention through deterrence" strategy, which attempts to dissuade potential border crossers by sealing off the Southern boundary, has failed to stem illegal immigration or drug trafficking, despite the agency's $10 billion budget and 20,000-officer workforce more than tripling over the past decade.

With two deficit commissions focused on reining in government expenditures, our current border security approach really should be a target for significant cuts and reforms. Alternative border security models exist, but in today's anti-immigrant climate, few politicians are questioning the value of unlimited spending on the past decade's enforcement-oriented approach to border security. And the deficit commissions are following suit -- border security, as part of overall DHS spending, has largely escaped the scalpel.

Two Approaches to Border Security

A May Congressional Research Service (CRS) report discusses two alternative approaches to border security, the "complex organism" and "fortress" models, and notes that America's current approach more closely resembles the latter. The report describes America's existing border security policy as costly and of limited effectiveness.

The Fortress: Today's fortress-like approach to border control requires significant financial investments with relatively little yield in terms of security, and with a negative impact on commerce. This model rests on the notion that all "threats" are external, and that the interior can be most effectively secured by reinforcing the perimeter. It wrongfully assumes that the market forces compelling immigration can be overcome by strict enforcement, and fails to recognize the high number of people who lawfully enter the U.S. on a valid visa or through a visa-waiver program, and overstay. This model also tends to broadcast a hostile image of the U.S. and poses significant issues for civil liberties in terms of surveillance and search policies. While not stated in the report, the fortress model seems especially appealing to those who feel threatened by the changing face of America, and have a psychological need for a militaristic challenge to the so-called immigration "invasion."

The Alternative: The CRS report also discusses an alternative "complex organism model" that recognizes border "threats" as dynamic and decentralized, and that takes into account the market forces that compel individuals to cross the border (and circumvent border patrols) in search of employment. This model considers the interconnectedness of the physical border with systems in both the interior and foreign countries, and distributes responsibility for overall security, in part, by recognizing foreign policy as intertwined with border/immigration policy. In practice, this model's approach to "securing the border" focuses less on expensive border militarization aimed at keeping illegal immigrants out, and more on implementing comprehensive immigration reforms to create a way to let legal immigrants and needed workers in. It involves promoting economic activity and civil society in border regions (on both sides of the border) to increase overall security with relatively little federal investment. While not without potential shortcomings -- results will not be immediate, and its success would partially rely on international cooperation -- in the long term, integrating elements of the "complex organism" model would be a less costly and more effective approach to border security.

The Current Approach to Border Security is Wasteful and Inefficient

Despite strong indications that a more comprehensive, dynamic approach would reap financial and security benefits, U.S. politicians appear committed to an enforcement-oriented model. Three recent examples help demonstrate the fiscal waste and civil liberties violations that plague America's current approach to border security.

The Expensive, Ineffective, and Constitutionally-Questionable "Operation Streamline"

Operation Streamline is a project initiated in 2005 that brands immigrants apprehended at the border with criminal records, systematically issues mass convictions without offering basic due process protections, and fails to stem the tide of border crossers. The project requires that immigrants apprehended at the border be detained, prosecuted, and incarcerated in the criminal system, in addition to the civil system; border crossers have traditionally only been accused of a civic offense and processed through administrative immigration proceedings. While new DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano claims the Department is directing its limited enforcement funds towards targeting "criminal aliens" for removal (formerly known as "deportation"), Operation Streamline is actually creating criminals. This slight-of-hand allows DHS to claim that half of all removed persons are "criminal aliens," but does not deter potential migrants.

Under the prior system, persons caught crossing the border were charged with a civil offense, "Entry Without Inspection" (EWI) and were given the option of "voluntary departure" by which they were returned to the other side of the border, without overnight detention or criminal charge (unless they had previously been deported from the U.S.). This system attempted to sort between unauthorized workers crossing the border and persons who had been deported previously, such as for conviction of a crime. The current system dramatically increases detention costs and judicial costs related to pursuing a criminal conviction, and is resulting in mass criminalization of desperate workers who have done nothing more than cross the border without a visa (which is impossible for most persons from Latin America to obtain).

Operation Streamline has been condemned by no less than the Pope -- the Pope! -- in a U.N. General Assembly review of America's human rights record. For more on the many due process and civil liberties violations involved in the Operation, check out a three-part report by National Public Radio.

In addition to mass criminalization and related human rights concerns, Operation Streamline has been both expensive and ineffective. Quantifying Operation Streamline's overall costs is very difficult, as it draws from the budgets of U.S. Attorneys, Marshals, and Federal Public Defenders offices, Border Patrol and the federal judiciary; Congress is reportedly spending $1 million on a study to determine its actual costs. However, since the program began, more than 130,000 immigrants have been branded with criminal convictions and incarcerated for up to 180 days before being deported. And incarceration is not cheap. A Grassroots Leadership report estimates that, since 2005, Texas alone has spent more than $1.2 billion of federal money detaining and incarcerating persons for unauthorized border crossings. Another study estimates that it costs nearly $100 per person per day to detain immigrants in Tucson. And because nearly all immigrants are incarcerated in privately-run prisons, these taxpayer dollars have largely benefitted the private prison industry (who also helped write Arizona's controversial immigration-enforcement law).

Despite these expenditures, branding attempted border crossers with a criminal record deters very few from repeating the effort. A report from the University of California-Berkeley Law School's Warren Institute on Ethnicity, and Diversity found that the overall decline in border apprehensions did not begin in 2005 with the introduction of Operation Streamline, but in 2000, with declining employment opportunities. Border apprehensions have largely mirrored fluctuations in the job market since 1991, regardless of border security measures.

The Virtually Useless "Virtual Fence"

Another ineffective and expensive border security effort has been the "virtual fence," a program that has reportedly wasted almost $1 billion in taxpayer dollars over the past five years without ever becoming operational. The federal government has recently announced plans to abandon the project, also called the "Strategic Border Initiative" (SBI), freeing up $100 million for other border projects. The doomed project began in 2006 under a contract with Boeing and was intended to remotely detect border crossers with sensors, cameras, and thermal imaging systems. The virtual fence was called "a classic example of a program that was grossly oversold" by Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) during Congressional hearings in April. Senator John "complete the dang fence" McCain (R-AZ), who continues supporting Operation Streamline, conceded: "There's been a lack of oversight. There's been a lack of accountability. And by most reports, this virtual fence has been a complete failure."

Despite the "virtual fence" program's utter failure, defense contractor Raytheon Corporation has unveiled a strikingly similar proposal that makes the same promises Boeing Corporation failed to deliver. A former Border Patrol deputy chief who is now a "consultant" at Raytheon has stated that the defense contractor "has provided thorough briefings about [the program] to senior leaders of the Border Patrol" and U.S. Customs and Border Protection; this gives the appearance of another case of the "revolving door" in Washington between corporations, lobbyists, and government.

Real Waste in Real Estate

Another example of unhinged border spending was documented in a November, 2010 Office of Inspector General (OIG) assessment that shows how DHS recently squandered $715,000 of taxpayer money when constructing a new Border Patrol facility in Lordsburg, New Mexico. The OIG had previously criticized the Border Patrol's lack of oversight and wasteful spending in a July 2009 report, but the agency still paid $750,000 for a lot valued at $35,000. While the OIG assessment did not penalize the agency, it found that the Border Patrol had limited its bargaining power by choosing only one site for the prospective facility; an agency with limited oversight and a bloated budget can get away with such wasteful conduct. The new facility became necessary after President George W. Bush added 6,000 new Border Patrol agents in 2006 as part of his push for "comprehensive immigration reform." Proposed comprehensive immigration reform did not pass, but the expanded number of Border Patrol agents remain, and we continue spending billions on the administration's expensive and ineffective approach to border security.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Calls for border security are made simultaneously with calls for deficit reduction. Tea Party candidates rode into office on pledges to cut federal spending, and two deficit commissions are considering ways to cut government spending. (Largely lost in the debate over immigration and the economy is the positive fiscal impact from two-thirds of unauthorized immigrant workers paying Medicare, Social Security, and personal income taxes, but being ineligible to claim any social welfare benefits.) Despite the rhetoric and speeches about "fiscal discipline," it appears unlikely that spending on our current border security approach will be subjected to the same scrutiny as other government programs. Indeed, Congress recently passed a $600 million fortress-oriented border security bill with bipartisan support. Few have publicly supported changing America's enforcement-oriented model and adopting a more humane, effective, and financially reasonable approach.

Rather than actually analyzing whether the billions spent on the border are effective, or considering whether better, more efficient alternatives exist, politicians from both parties continue pandering to nativists. As CMD has previously reported, many political candidates in the 2010 midterm elections played on racist and xenophobic fears. Some right-wing politicians have further stoked anxieties by making ludicrous claims about terrorists and the border. Some "rising" Republicans have even announced plans to overturn the 14th Amendment's citizenship guarantees for Americans born in the U.S. Simple catchphrases like "what part of illegal don't you understand?" may be popular, but they ignore the fact that, for most individuals, "illegal" entry remains the exclusive means of accessing the land of opportunity. Unlike some of the immigrant admission policies that allowed our grandparents to enter legally, today's laws block honest, ambitious persons from obtaining an immigrant visa.

With anti-immigrant sentiment on the rise, many politicians who claim to be "fiscally conservative" continue trying to plug holes in the border with dollar bills. Most justifications for this lavish spending on the Southern border are weak. "Re-establishing our borders" may be psychologically comforting, but America's boundary with Canada remains the world's longest unsecured border. Sealing the Southern border is not a national security issue: any thorough plotter would cross from the North or, if they have wealthy backers, obtain visitor visas like the 9-11 hijackers. It is hardly about drug trafficking: most border security programs are directed at apprehending individuals rather than substances, and drug smugglers would not be subject to programs like Operation Streamline (real criminals would be processed through the normal criminal justice system rather than Operation Streamline's expedited criminal corral). It is not about preventing crime ("illegal entry" notwithstanding): crime tends to go down when immigration goes up, and immigrants have much lower levels of criminality than the general population. Sadly, many enforcement-oriented border security supporters seem less concerned with preserving America's territorial integrity than they are America's racial composition.

None of this is to say that America should open its borders and abandon homeland security efforts. Nor is it criticizing border patrol officers for carrying out the job they have been assigned. But we should rationally define why we need border security and craft solutions accordingly. And we must balance the cost of our proposed solutions against their effectiveness. Most importantly, we must not allow "border security" to stand in the way of young persons pursuing their dreams or serving their country, and we must not allow our worst instincts to define our approach to homeland security.


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You're kidding right? This is nothing but spin and a pro-illegal stance to border protection. Journalistic responsibility and integrity? Not even in the slightest. This site is pro-left wing and each article I have read proves your spin in that direction. It's OK but if you can not be honest about your organization, there is no reason to read anything you put forward.

Immigration is not a left-wing issue. This article's sentiments are echoed in a variety of commentaries from right-leaning, libertarian-oriented organizations. See, for example, articles from the Reason Foundation: (criticizing stimulus spending on border security as "not an efficient use funds from a cost-benefit analysis perspective") And from the Cato Institute: While I do not consider myself a conservative, the father of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley, famously said: "A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." Our current approach to border security is wasteful, ineffective, counter-productive, and contrary to American values; our country needs more people yelling "Stop," even if certain sectors have little patience with those who urge it.

cato and reason are not "right-leaning". they are libertarian. they support open borders, along with no evironmental protection laws, no laws against drunk-driving (look it up on the reason site), and plenty of other wacky things. if we need an immigration system that is labor based, then our system needs to mirror that. but it's the democrats that want our current family-based system to stay. we already allow over 1 million immigrants to arrive here annually since the early 90s. the so-called alternative (complex organism model? LOL) leftists and looney libertarians come up with is laughable, and does nothing to prevent future illegal immigration. declaring everyone legal means open borders, and no rational sovereign nation would go by that policy. it will do nothing but further drive down wages, create an endless cycle of worker exploitation, and further the destruction of the environment. the "progressives" will be doing the bidding of supercapitalists, most of which could give a rats ass about you or me. what we need: real border fencing like that which works in san diego, fixes to our trade policy, e-verify, no more corporate welfare or farm subsidies, incentives for businesses to hire american workers and who do business here, and if necessary, and program for a limited number of workers to do TEMPORARY work.

The "complex organism model" is not something created by looney libertarians and liberals, but by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Spending billions on increasingly high fences and increasingly expensive security technology cannot overcome the market forces that drive persons to cross the U.S. border in search of employment and higher wages. But many refuse to acknowledge this, and we continue wasting more money on the unattainable goal of sealing the border with Mexico, and use its failure as an excuse to refuse consideration of any reforms that would allow a legal means for motivated but low-skilled individuals to come to the U.S. and work. You state that we should create a more labor-based system that provides temporary opportunities, and I agree. Creating such an alternative is not "open borders," it is simply a moderated way for motivated persons to migrate legally. America needs to accept that the economic forces driving migration flows are too powerful to dam up, particularly if we care about fiscal responsibility; we need to focus on creating the channels through which migration can flow legally. As for Cato and Reason, they are certainly libertarian, but libertarians [ lean Republican] in our current political climate. Many Tea Partiers purport to claim the libertarian banner, as do Republican politicians like Ron Paul, [ Ron Johnson], Rand Paul, and others. (Even if those mentioned do not support immigration reform, they do claim to support fiscal responsibility, and our current border security approach is certainly not fiscally responsible). The point is that immigration reform and disdain over wasteful border security spending is not a partisan or "lefty" issue.

You're absolutely right! Besides, it's not expensive just for the government. Their failure to stop illegals, who are incapable of working, from crossing in is the source of losses in our communities. I run a small metal working shop and let me tell you these mexicans are busting my fence and stealing pieces of metal every week! What the hell do they need the metal for anyway? The worst part is that police won't do anything about it. I had an incident where I came outside chasing them away with a gun (I did not shoot - I'm not an idiot) only to get in trouble for caring it outside the house! Can you believe this! Now my only options are to either attempt the <a href="">diy security solutions</a> that I found online or be forced to pay those sharks the professional security companies. They are probably the only ones cashing in on illegals!

There are many other sources of information in the public realm on not just this "border intelligence" silliness but the broader scope of DEA "interdiction" silliness. No personal experience here, but simple common sense, those who perform these tasks will be the first to tell you how successful and indespible they are. Can't blame them, they've got families to feed as well as egos to stoke. Must be fun to tell folks I'm part of an "Elite" force that walks around the desert and finds empty cans of pinnaple with literally months between any significant arrests, thats if they get lucky. Typically they are thwarted, most every time. And it ain't just these "Elite" agents pay we are talking about here for month of activity. Ever heard of the military industrial complex? You're seeing an entirely new approach to draining our country's scarce resources. These border fencers are just holding out there hands for more, more, more. And deliver no change. Nothing "left wing" about fiscal responsibility. I recommend you revisit your middle school poli-sci texts. Perhaps you are a beneficiary of this new, expanded, wasteful governement spend. Or perhaps your are simply ignorant. At the very least, read and try to understand the opposing voice and you won't be so entirely dismissive.

Wow! All of this discussion, proposals, studies and political spin on such a simple issue as a border. Most grade schoolers(below 14)could tell you how to shut it down. Patrol it via US army, build a fence. Done. Same as Mexico does with its southern border, and the rest of the world. How sad and pathetic we have become..

Your solution is a chimera, it's no solution at all. 1st you cannot shutdown US borders, nor can you shut down the Southern Border. There are 48 places where one can legally cross the US Border, not counting rail crossings. That border is the most heavily trafficked border in the world. There are some 350 million crossings in either direction annually. Mexico is our 3rd largest trading partner. Trying to close the Southern Border would be stupid. By truck alone $363 Billion in goods crossed the border. Add rail crossing and it's $535 Billion in goods! Those numbers are from 2014, it's even greater today. At the Southern border delays in crossing are costly.