Posts tagged Border Security
Posts tagged Border Security
“Q: So McCaul’s [Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas)] proposal would expand the Department for Homeland Security’s drone fleet?”
“A: We probably need more. Our border has over 1,200 miles, so we will definitely need more of them to provide more coverage there.”
The notion that the U.S.-Mexico border needs to increase the size of its drone fleet is a claim that has been echoed in both the House and Senate. But a 2012 audit of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) drone program found just the opposite to be true: CBP does not, in fact, need more drones.
According to the report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG), CBP already owns more drones than it can afford to operate. In 2012, the agency had a fleet of seven unmanned aircraft. Just to meet the “mission availability threshold” (minimum capacity), each drone would need to log 10,662 flight hours per year. To reach the operational level actually desired by CBP, the drones would need to fly 13,328 hours per year.
But the drones flew just 3,909 hours—a mere 29 percent of desired capacity.
Although bad weather was one of the listed causes for falling so short of expectations, the main reason was that CBP had vastly underestimated the amount of resources necessary to support the drone fleet.
In addition to their steep price tag, unmanned aircraft cost approximately US$3,234 to operate per flight hour and require an hour of maintenance for every hour of flight. Not having anticipated, nor planned, for these high operational costs, CBP faced a budget shortfall and was forced to shuffle $25 million from other programs just to fly the drones at a third of their capacity. The program lacks qualified staff, ground control stations and equipment, cameras, and navigation systems, among other things. Because of this, the report concluded that until CBP develops plans to meet the desired operational capacity, it recommends the postponement of additional drone purchases.
Of course, achieving this goal would come at a cost; just to increase the flight time of the current fleet to desired levels would require $43.1 million per year—or 9 percent of the entire operations, maintenance, and procurement budget for CBP’s Air and Marine Branch ($504 million).
The Department of Homeland Security plans to increase the size of its fleet to 11 by 2016, and the Senate immigration bill (S.744), were it to pass the House, would authorize yet another four drones to be used on the border. At the rate cited above, these proposals would raise the annual cost to $92.4 million.
The question of whether to purchase more drones goes beyond purely economic considerations and stretches into the territory of civil liberty concerns. The constant use of drones over U.S. soil increases the likelihood of federal government spying on the activities of U.S. citizens. Not only has CBP yet to establish explicit rules that would protect the privacy rights of citizens, but it has also flown its Predator drones on behalf of other agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, and several County Sheriff’s Offices (the names of which have been withheld from the public) over 500 times in the past three years. Although the Inspector General has severely reprimanded CBP for failing to regulate who uses the drones, and how they are used, an explicit, overarching policy has not been implemented.
Beyond economics and efficiency, the use of new surveillance technologies at the border raises a host of new concerns. Rushing to increase the number of surveillance drones over U.S. territory without first addressing the issue of privacy and civil liberty concerns puts the government at risk of encroaching on U.S. citizens’ constitutional rights yet again.
— Ashley Davis
“I see the engine of this immigration ship not working. The bureaucracy is failing. But I also see on the ship that we’ve got a leak — we don’t know who is coming in and out across our borders. If you have a ship that has an engine that is not working and a leak in the bottom, what do you fix first? You fix the leak. My fear is we’re not really enforcing (immigration laws) right now.”
— Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Illinois), quoted August 31, 2013.
In fact, we do have a good idea of who is coming in and out across our borders — or at least, a better idea than we have ever had.
1. Who is coming in:
In 2011, Border Patrol estimated that 533,571 people crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Of these, 84 percent (448,104) were either apprehended or turned back into Mexico.
It is true that Border Patrol has not regularly reported the number of migrants it estimates to have turned back or eluded capture, and no such estimates are yet publicly available for 2012. But the agency publishes decades of data on its apprehensions of migrants, a decent indicator of the overall flow of “who is coming in.”
In 2012, Border Patrol apprehended 356,873 undocumented migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border. That was up slightly from 2011, but still the second-smallest number measured since 1973. According to this indicator (as well as others like migrant surveys and testimonies from shelters), undocumented migration has plummeted rapidly. As recently as 2006, Border Patrol was routinely apprehending a million or more migrants.
Better technologies may reveal a larger number of migrants who evade capture, especially in remote areas. But still, using current methods the percentage of those who are apprehended appears to be growing, as a December 2012 Government Accountability Office report attests. And recidivism rates — the number of apprehended migrants who had been apprehended before — are lower than they have been since measurements began, notes the Congressional Research Service [PDF].
2. Who is coming out:
In eight of the past ten years, including 2012, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) set a new record for the number of undocumented individuals removed [PDF] from the United States. Last year ICE totaled 409,849 removals, up from 165,168 a decade earlier and 43,671 in 1992.
If past years’ proportions are a guide, about two-thirds (perhaps 275,000) of these removed individuals came from Mexico and Central America. Add the number of individuals returned by Border Patrol last year (likely between 250,000 and 300,000), and you get over 525,000 undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America “coming out” of the United States.
That is quite similar to the 533,571 people whom Border Patrol estimated to have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in 2011. With almost the same numbers going “out” as are going “in,” the “leak” to which Rep. Hultgren refers is actually a net of about zero migrants. In fact, after reaching a 40-year low, it could even be seeping outward.
Estimates of the population living here illegally bear that out. It has been declining, from a high of 12.4 million people in 2007 to 11.1 million in 2011.
3. We are “enforcing immigration laws right now.”
In fact, immigration laws are being enforced far more strongly than they ever have. In 2012, CRS reports [PDF], 86 percent of apprehended migrants had to go through some sort of “consequence delivery” (criminal trial, lateral repatriation, formal deportation proceeding, or others) instead of being voluntarily returned. Only 14 percent were voluntarily returned. As recently as 2005, 77 percent were voluntarily returned.
Source: Congressional Research Service (PDF)
We can and should debate the effectiveness, and the humaneness, of these “consequence delivery” measures. But it’s impossible to dispute that they — and “immigration laws” in general — are not being “enforced right now.”
— Adam Isacson
"This is border security on steroids."
The Corker amendment would roughly double the size of U.S. Border Patrol to about 40,000 members. Is that a wise use of funds?
Border Patrol has already doubled in size [PDF] since 2005, and quintupled in size since 1993. There were 9,891 agents stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2005; by the end of 2012 there were 18,516.
Meanwhile, border crossings are way down. In 2000, Border Patrol agents apprehended [PDF] 1,643,679 people near the U.S.-Mexico border. By last year, that number had dropped to 356,873.
As the agency grew and border-crossers dropped, the number of “apprehensions per agent” has fallen to historic lows. In 2000 each Border Patrol agent at the U.S.-Mexico border apprehended an average of 192 border-crossers. By 2012 the average was 19 apprehensions per agent.
Given this remarkable drop, is not clear how much more a further doubling of Border Patrol would achieve. Dropping the ratio to 10 apprehensions per agent per year would be a small gain for such a great expense.
That expense would be immense. If we very conservatively estimate the cost of maintaining a Border Patrol officer (salary, benefits, training, vehicles, fuel, uniforms, etc.) at US$100,000 per year, then 20,000 new agents would cost the U.S. Treasury US$2 billion per year. (The agency’s current budget [PDF] is about US$3.5 billion.)
An additional US$2 billion per year is far more money than the current Senate immigration reform bill contemplates spending. S.744 foresees up to US$6.5 billion total, to be spent over five-plus years, in new border security funds.
Given these apprehension and staffing trends, doubling Border Patrol does not appear to be the most efficient use of an additional US$2 billion per year.
"For people who are concerned about border security, once they see what’s in this bill, it’s almost overkill," Sen. Corker said today. We agree with that, except for the “almost.”
"The Secretary [of Homeland Security] may not adjust the status of aliens who have been granted registered provisional immigrant status… until … the Secretary has achieved and maintained operational control of the Southern border for the 12-month period immediately preceding such certification. …
"The term 'operational control' means that, within each and every sector of the Southern border, a condition exists in which there is an effectiveness rate, informed by situational awareness, of not lower than 90 percent. …
"The term 'effectiveness rate' means a metric, informed by situational awareness, that measures the percentage calculated by dividing—
(A) the number of illegal border crossers who are apprehended or turned back during a fiscal year … by
(B) the total number of illegal entries in the sector during such fiscal year.”
—From the text of Senate Amendment 1251 to S.744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, proposed yesterday by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and 15 other Republican Party senators.
As it considers a sweeping immigration reform, the full U.S. Senate is expected to debate and vote on the Cornyn amendment today. Known as the “Requiring Enforcement, Security and safety while Upgrading Lawful Trade and travel Simultaneously (RESULTS)” provision, this amendment would tighten the so-called “trigger”: a border security threshold that must first be met in order for undocumented migrants to attain legal status.
In plain English: both the existing immigration reform bill and the Cornyn amendment are gauging border security using a measure that they call an “effectiveness rate.” To calculate it, they look at the number of border-crossers that U.S. authorities apprehend, the number who they “turn back” across the border, and the number whom they believe “got away.” Both the bill and the amendment call for a 90 percent effectiveness rate. To achieve this threshold, the number of “got aways” would have to be less than 10 percent of the total number of detected border-crossers.
If this 90 percent threshold is not met within five years, the current Senate bill would require a special Southern Border Security Commission to make recommendations for policy changes. An additional US$2 billion in border security funds (over an initial US$4.5 billion) would be available to implement the commission’s recommendations. If the 90 percent goal is not met, immigrants seeking to legalize their status would not be affected.
Under the Cornyn amendment, if the 90 percent threshold is not met, immigrants will not be allowed to exit their temporary “provisional immigrant” status and embark on the “path to citizenship.”
Some Democrats call this amendment a “poison pill" — a requirement that sets such a high border-security standard that it achieves what they believe to be the amendment’s authors’ real goal: blocking the "path to citizenship" for currently undocumented migrants.
The border security “trigger” argument hinges on whether the 90 percent “effectiveness rate” is a reasonable standard.
In 2011, statistics from a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report reveal, the effectiveness rate was 84 percent. The illustration shows where the Border Patrol’s nine sectors stood that year (click to enlarge).
The Senate bill would increase spending on border security. Even more law enforcement presence along the border could increase apprehensions, which might appear to bring the 90 percent “effectiveness” goal within reach.
But the new security spending will also include investment in new technologies that, ironically, could make the 90 percent goal more elusive than ever.
A host of new sensors, cameras, drones, radars, and other imagery and detection equipment — some of it developed for Defense Department use in Iraq and Afghanistan — could find a great deal more border crossers who currently go undetected, especially in remote, rural areas. U.S. agencies’ new gadgets may tell them that the number of “got aways” is greater than they thought. That was the experience of an early 2013 test run of VADER, a Defense Department radar system, in Arizona. According to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, VADER revealed an “effectiveness rate” in Tucson many percentage points lower than the official number.
With technology revealing more “got-aways” than previously thought, the 90 percent threshold could be farther off, not closer. Meanwhile, heightened border security may drive border-crossers to even more remote areas, where actually being on the scene and apprehending people is hardest. Note the conditions right now in the massive Big Bend sector of west Texas, which registered a small number of migrants but the lowest “effectiveness rate” — 68 percent — of all sectors in 2011. Because Big Bend is far from any population centers, it may never become the number-one destination for migrants. But because it is so empty and difficult to patrol, there is still room for massive growth here, and in the neighboring Del Rio sector, if a crackdown succeeds elsewhere.
A look at the numbers, recent geographical migration trends, and the likely impact of better detection technologies leads us to conclude that the 90 percent threshold is unlikely to be met across the entire U.S.-Mexico border. As a result, the Cornyn amendment would probably put the “path to citizenship” out of reach.
— Adam Isacson
Has “lacking border security” led to a halt in commerce or a spillover of violence at the border?
“Less than 10 years ago, a trip from my home state across the border to Nuevo Laredo, one of several Mexican border cities, was routine. As a result, commerce and culture flowed across the border, benefiting both countries. Today, after years of lacking border security efforts, such travel is almost unthinkable. Sadly, the border has turned into a magnet for spillover violence from Central American drug cartels.”
— Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, in an April 23 op-ed published in Roll Call.
Rep. McCaul is correct that organized crime-related violence in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, has diminished travel to that city. Our own interviews with business, social and law enforcement leaders in Laredo, Texas found that it had been years since most had crossed the river into Nuevo Laredo.
But the Congressman, whose Austin-area district lies 250 miles from the border, leaves an incorrect impression that cross-border commerce has stopped, and that Nuevo Laredo’s violence is spilling over the border into the United States.
Cross-border commerce is busier than ever. According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, in fiscal year 2011 U.S. goods and services trade with Mexico totaled $500 billion. U.S. exports across the border are up 77.6 percent since 2000, while imports are up 93.4 percent.
According to the Department of Justice, Laredo-Nuevo Laredo is the busiest inland port in the nation, “handling more freight than all the U.S. ports of entry to its west combined.” More than 700 of the Fortune 1,000 companies do international business via Laredo and “more than 9,000 trucks cross through town per day along with 1,800 loaded rail cars.”
The violence in Nuevo Laredo, meanwhile, is not spilling over, according to national crime statistics and local law enforcement.
According to police in Laredo, “violent crime is down and spillover from drug-war violence in Mexico is minimal.” Laredo (population 241,000) experienced 10 homicides in 2012.
Its violent crime rate in 2011, the last year for which full data were available (464.6 crimes per 100,000 inhabitants), while higher than the national average, is less than half that of Houston, and lower than San Antonio or Dallas. Laredo’s violent crime rate is only a shade higher than Austin (430.1 crimes per 100,000 inhabitants), the largest city within Rep. McCaul’s district. In fact, of the 32 Texas cities with 100,000-plus population in 2011, none of the four border cities was among the top 10 most violent (see graphic above).
Statistics show a similar lack of spillover along the border. Throughout the United States, the FBI Uniform Crime Report estimated a violent crime rate of 386.3 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011. The same data available that year for counties touching the border showed an average of 268.3 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants. Border counties experienced 118 fewer violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants than the country as a whole.
— Adam Isacson (with research assistance from WOLA Intern Elizabeth Glusman)
“Many of my colleagues say, ‘Why do we need to do anything more on the border?’ and we do. We should do more. … What I learned today is we have adequate manpower, but not adequate technology.”
– Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, while visiting the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona on March 27.
Sen. Schumer is one of the “gang of eight” senators who are expected to be submitting legislation within the next several days for a sweeping proposed immigration reform.
That proposal may delay changes to U.S. immigration procedures – such as a “path to citizenship” for currently undocumented migrants – until something is first done on border security. That “something” is likely to be a commitment to intensify the past ten years’ large-scale buildup in the U.S. border security apparatus.
Sen. Schumer’s comments indicate that instead of further increasing manpower – the Border Patrol has doubled since 2005, and quintupled since 1993 [PDF] – this new proposed buildup may focus on technology: sensors, drones, imagery, radar, cameras, communications and similar items along the border.
More technology would give U.S. border security personnel a fuller picture of what is happening at the border, in particular who is crossing. But it will also reveal, in sharp focus, how remarkably difficult the border is to secure.
The challenge is what law-enforcement officials often call the “endgame”: the act of bringing personnel to the place where something illegal is happening, and arresting those responsible. On its own, better technology will not ease the endgame.
An analogy is Central America, where U.S. military and Coast Guard assets use radars, aircraft and imagery to follow boats or aircraft suspected of trafficking drugs. Too often, the U.S. technology gets used simply to film traffickers calmly unloading bales of cargo in remote areas of places like eastern Honduras, where there is almost no government presence and little likelihood that authorities will confront them. The remarkable U.S. technology can capture this on video, but with no personnel on the ground, it can do little more than film it.
At the U.S.-Mexico border, something similar may happen in the vast stretches of desert and scrubland that improved U.S. technology would monitor. The new gadgets may find far more border crossers than were previously believed to exist. But they would do little to ease apprehensions.
A very illustrative example comes from an April 4 report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, which obtained documents about a new radar system, used by the Defense Department in Afghanistan, that U.S. Customs and Border Protection began testing along the border in Arizona late last year.
The VADER (Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar) system gave U.S. authorities a troubling result: they found that they have been missing many more crossings than they thought.
“Between October and December, records show, the remotely operated aircraft detected 7,333 border crossers during its Arizona missions. Border Patrol agents, however, reported 410 apprehensions during that time, according to an internal agency report.” …
“Another report that highlights what the radar system detected from October to mid-January underscores the agency’s struggle to measure results and shows conflicting numbers. Border Patrol agents apprehended 1,874 crossers that the sensor identified, but 1,962 more escaped capture.”
The VADER data showed Border Patrol apprehending well under half of the total number of illegal border crossers. This is much poorer than the pre-VADER results Border Patrol had claimed in a February U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which found a 5-to-1 ratio of apprehensions to “got-aways” in the Tuscon sector in 2011.
It is not clear, then, whether more technology would help to secure the border, or whether it would merely show authorities more of what they are missing.
High-tech equipment can monitor remote zones that are hours from the nearest Border Patrol stations and miles from the nearest roads. But even if Border Patrol were to double its staffing levels again, it would still not have enough manpower to carry out endgame operations in all of these rugged, inaccessible areas along the 1,969-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Especially since, in many cases, pursuit would have to happen on foot and in conditions of poor ground visibility, especially at night.
In the best of cases, improved technology would help Border Patrol and other U.S. law enforcement agencies respond more quickly to increased crossings in new areas. This would require it to transfer its personnel across sectors much more frequently, a significant hardship to agents with families and roots in their current communities. (Right now, Border Patrol is slow to redeploy personnel. Among its nine Mexico border sectors, its very quiet El Paso sector continues to have the second-highest number of agents.) It would also mean a far greater number of agents spending longer periods in rustic “forward operating bases” in the wilderness, closer to the suspicious activity detected by high-tech sensors.
More technology might help U.S. agencies reorient their resources more nimbly than they do now. But it would not be a panacea for border security. If anything, it would highlight the extreme difficulty of the “endgame.”
– Adam Isacson
How common or rare is abuse of migrants in U.S. custody?
“The Department of Homeland Security claims that only three complaints were lodged against Border Patrol detention conditions for the entirety of 2010 (the most current data), a year when agents apprehended more than 463,000 individuals. Only 10 complaints were filed for ‘abuse of authority’ that year and 13 for ‘discrimination.’ … Customs and Border Patrol in Washington responded in even more general terms: ‘CBP stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission,’ an agency spokesperson said by email. ‘We do not tolerate abuse within our ranks, and … we are fully committed to protecting the health, safety and human rights of all individuals with whom we interact.’” — John Carlos Frey, “Cruelty on the Border,” Salon.com, July 20, 2012
Non-governmental groups have already documented what appears to be a far more widespread problem of migrant abuse while in the custody of U.S. authorities. Last week, a team from the University of Arizona published an extensive study adding new evidence.
To produce In the Shadow of the Wall (PDF), Jeremy Slack, Daniel Martínez, Scott Whiteford, and Emily Peiffer led a team that surveyed 1,113 recent deportees in five Mexican border cities, as well as in Mexico City, between 2010 and 2012.
Of those surveyed:
On the other hand, 57 percent of deportees surveyed said that “everyone” or “the majority” of Border Patrol agents “treated me with respect” Twenty-nine percent said “about half of them treated me with respect.” Still, these numbers are indicative of more than just a few “bad apples.”
The University of Arizona study recommends a series of measures that Border Patrol and other agencies should take to review their use-of-force guidelines and to improve mechanisms for transparency and dealing with abuse complaints. These include reexamining internal affairs procedures, improving training programs, establishing a chain of custody for migrants’ possessions, and reevaluating legal procedures to ensure migrants know what they are signing.
— Adam Isacson
“ATEP [the Alien Transfer Exit Program] is an ongoing program whereby the Office of Border Patrol, in collaboration with ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), moves Mexican nationals apprehended in one Border Patrol Sector to another ERO Area of Responsibility before removing them to Mexico. ATEP breaks the smuggling cycle by repatriating aliens into regions further east or west of their entry location and, thus, preventing them from immediately coordinating with their smugglers for re-entry.” — Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, congressional testimony, May 3, 2011
The ATEP program deports tens of thousands of migrants each year to Mexican border cities hundreds or thousands of miles from where they were apprehended. Critics of the program claim that it routinely separates families, and endangers migrants by dropping them off — often in the middle of the night — in unfamiliar border cities dominated by organized-crime groups who prey upon or even seek to recruit them. Defenders of ATEP say that these “lateral transfers” deter migrants from attempting to cross again.
A team from the University of Arizona has published an extensive study this week raising important concerns about the ATEP program. They find that the program rarely discourages repeat border crossings.
To produce In the Shadow of the Wall (PDF), Jeremy Slack, Daniel Martínez, Scott Whiteford, and Emily Peiffer led a team that surveyed 1,113 recent deportees in five Mexican border cities, as well as in Mexico City, between 2010 and 2012.
Their surveys lead them to conclude that ATEP “appears to have no impact on whether or not people will cross again.” In an e-mail communication, study co-author Daniel Martínez told WOLA that the 18 percent of surveyed deportees who were repatriated far from their point of apprehension were just as likely as other deportees to say they intended to attempt the crossing again.
“People who go through ATEP actually report intending to cross again at a higher rate than people who do not (31% of those processed through ATEP intend to cross within a week, compared to 24% of those who were not laterally repatriated). However, after one controls for various factors, the effect of ATEP on future crossings in not statistically significant. Ultimately, I can confidently say that ATEP does not influence future crossing decisions.”
The study also notes that of all deportees (including non-ATEP deportees), fully 18 percent were dropped off in Mexican border cities between the hours of 10:00PM and 5:00AM, a time when all basic services are closed and public security conditions are worst. Many of these night deportations are part of a surprising recent “increase in deportation to Mexico’s northeastern border where drug fueled violence has had a huge impact on migrants.”
The study recommends ending ATEP and ceasing night deportations.
— Adam Isacson
“I was surprised, and frankly disappointed, to learn that the Border Patrol has four drones deployed in Arizona but only has the resources to fly two of them — and even then they cannot fly them every day of the week.”
Perhaps even more surprising is the cost involved with operating a drone like the four MQ-9 Predator-B aircraft currently stationed at Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista, Arizona.
“For Fiscal Year 2010, DHS reported that its Predator B (a variant of DOD’s Reaper) costs approximately $3,234 per flight hour,” the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2011. “This is the total direct and indirect cost, including fuel, maintenance, support services, and labor.”
Another three unmanned aircraft (two Predator-Bs and a Predator-B maritime variant) are currently patrolling the eastern part of the border from bases at Naval Station Corpus Christi, Texas and Cape Canaveral, Florida.
According to the Department of Homeland Security Inspector-General [PDF], the seven drones’ “desired capability” would be to operate for 13,328 flight hours per year. At the per-hour cost cited above, this would require US$43.1 million per year. That alone would equal about 9 percent of the entire operations, maintenance, and procurement budget for Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine branch (US$504 million), which employs 271 aircraft and 301 vessels throughout the United States and elsewhere in the world.
The Department of Homeland Security has declared its intention to increase the southwest border drone fleet to 11 by 2016. At this same rate, this would push the yearly cost to US$67.7 million.
Because they are so costly to operate, these drones may spend a lot of time on the ground over the next few years. It would seem that some of this is a result of a miscalculation by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which has bought more drones than it can afford to operate. “CBP had not adequately planned for resources needed to support the current unmanned aircraft inventory,” notes the 2012 report [PDF] from the DHS Inspector-General, which adds that “CBP has not ensured that adequate resources are available to effectively operate its unmanned aircraft.”
The drones’ performance on the border, meanwhile, has been modest so far in terms of drugs seized or migrants detected: “The amount of illicit drugs seized in Predator raids is ‘not impressive,’” Michael Kostelnik, the head of CBP Air and Marine, told the Los Angeles Times in 2012.
The problem is likely to worsen this year as CBP — the large DHS agency of which the Air and Marine Branch is one part — is seeing its budget cut by about 5 percent, or US$512 million, as a result of sequestration.
An interesting final note: while Sen. Carper (who has a lifetime 87/100 “liberal” rating from Americans for Democratic Action) pushed at the March 14 hearing for more drones at the border, it was the Committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma, with a lifetime 98/100 “conservative” rating from the American Conservative Union), who voiced civil-liberties concerns.
"I have also questioned the Secretary [of Homeland Security] about her approval of the use of drones. In a March 2nd C- NET article, it was reported the DHS has customized its drone fleet to carry out domestic surveillance missions such as ‘identifying civilians carrying guns and tracking their cell phones,’ which fly in the face of civil liberties. We must ask whether the trade off in terms of border security is worth the privacy sacrifice."
— Adam Isacson
"I was just down there last week. I was with the National Guard. I was in a Blackhawk. I saw them on the other side, the drug cartels, ready to come across in the middle of the night. It is not secure. … The ranchers will tell you, if you sit down and talk to them, that they’re fearful, that the Border Patrol is too far north. They need to get closer to the border because they let them go so far, and then they just sort of blend in, and they’re destroying their land and destroying their cattle, they’re destroying their water."
— Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, interviewed on Fox News, February 22, 2013.
"It’s like living in a no man’s land. The Border Patrol doesn’t really protect us. They try to arrest people north of us mainly. I feel that the United States has made a decision not to guard the border where they should. we should guard the border at the border."
— Rancher Jim Chilton of Arivaca, Arizona, interviewed by Mark Potter of NBC News, February 17, 2013. Potter also interviewed Chilton in December: “‘The druggers outrageously use my land at will,’ said Chilton, who frequently finds evidence of smugglers on his land — well-worn trails, cut fences, discarded water bottles, clothing and shoes.”
While Gov. Brewer and Mr. Chilton seem to conflate migrants and drug traffickers, they have a point. The U.S.-Mexico border is safer than it has been in decades, and state data show Arizona’s border counties experiencing double-digit drops in common crime over the past decade. But there are still areas of the border where people can plausibly claim to feel insecure as migrants and smugglers cross their property.
What is different than even the recent past, though, is that the areas where people feel threatened are ever more remote and unpopulated. The nearest town to Mr. Chilton is Arivaca (population 695), near the border southwest of Tucson, part of U.S. Census tract 43.16. In 2010, the Census Bureau found only 3,599 individuals living in this entire 998-square-mile zone.
The security concerns of ranchers in these remote areas are valid. But there are good reasons why the security presence is not at the level ranchers like Mr. Chilton demand — and they don’t have to do with official blindness to “real” security conditions.
It is in places like these where the cost and difficulty of border security grow substantially higher for each additional border mile, or piece of private property, covered. What sort of force would it take to patrol a 50,000-acre ranch, especially at night? Particularly when it is located two or more hours’ drive away from Border Patrol stations in a sector that already has eight? And when it includes border areas so rugged, steep or unstable that tall fencing — whose construction in more favorable circumstances costs US$3.9 million per mile — cannot be built?
View Border Patrol stations in the Tucson Sector
But cost may not even be the main issue. Of all nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors, Tucson has by far the most Border Patrol agents: 4,176 in 2012. That is 23 percent of the entire Border Patrol force along the Mexico border, in a sector that comprises just 13 percent of border miles. On average, each Tucson sector agent apprehended 29 migrants in 2012, down from 398 in 2000.
Lack of capacity, then, is not the reason why ranchers and Gov. Brewer aren’t getting the level of coverage they demand. Instead, it is a factor of how Border Patrol has chosen to allocate resources: officials believe that it is more effective to man checkpoints in areas several miles north of the border. “I would get less out of putting those agents on the line than having them operate those checkpoints,” an Arizona-based Customs and Border Protection offical told NBC News.
Ranchers’ concerns could be assuaged by increasing patrols, improving response times, and establishing closer coordination between them and law enforcement. But there is another dimension to ranchers’ security concerns: they are taking on a large political importance as Washington debates a possible comprehensive immigration reform.
A proposal [PDF] being developed by a bipartisan group of senators would require the border to be judged “secure” before immigration reforms, such as a “path to citizenship,” could go forward. It is possible, then, that ranchers’ fears in some of the most remote parts of the border could block immigration reform nationwide.
This is something that Gov. Brewer endorses: “I believe that until the ranchers, law enforcement, is satisfied and they tell us that this border is secured, there’s not going to be a whole lot of movement [on immigration reform],” she told Fox News.
Achieving zero border-crossers, though, has proved impossible even in zones that the Border Patrol considers to be under “operational control.” If full security in even the remotest areas is to be the standard for immigration reform, such reform may never happen.
— Adam Isacson
“[W]e have to have control to the level we have on the Yuma sector today, and we can achieve it and it’s doable, so we’ll do it.”
John McCain is one of eight senators, from both parties, who issued a proposal for immigration reform on Monday. The senators’ proposal establishes a “path to citizenship” for undocumented migrants. But as their plan foresees it, this reform wouldn’t begin until “enforcement measures have been completed” and a commission of state governors, attorneys-general, and community leaders certifies that the border is secure.
In other words, the senators’ plan requires that border security come first, before immigration reform. The White House’s plan, introduced Tuesday, does not include this condition. Whether the border must first be “secure” is emerging as a central point of disagreement.
The eight senators don’t seem to agree, though, what “secure” means. “If we made the path to citizenship contingent on a safe and secure border, and just used that phrase, then it’s in the eye of the beholder. It will always be subjective,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois).
But Republicans McCain and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) define a secure border rather strictly. The Associated Press reports:
“Rubio has said that ‘operational security’ of the 2,000-mile border should be achieved before illegal immigrants can begin to achieve citizenship. He’s defined that as law enforcement having a very high probability of being able to prevent somebody from illegally crossing the border or apprehending them if they do. A Government Accountability Office report in 2011 said that of the nine southwestern border sectors, only the Yuma, Ariz., sector had reported full operational security. [Also called ‘operational control.’]”
The Yuma sector, encompassing the border in far eastern California and far western Arizona, is one of nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border. Of all nine, it is the sector that has seen the steepest drop in apprehensions of migrants (and thus, presumably, the steepest drop in migrant crossings) since 2005: from 138,000 apprehensions that year to 6,000 in 2011.
Holding all nine border sectors to the Yuma standard of “operational security,” though, may be too high a standard. The Yuma sector is something of an outlier.
It has no major destination cities to attract migrants; the sector’s only significant population centers within 200 miles of the border are Yuma (population 95,000), Blythe (21,000) and Wellton (3,000), Arizona. Only two north-south roads, neither an interstate highway, parallel the Colorado river. The terrain is empty desert.
Google Maps satellite view of the Yuma sector.
The Yuma sector has only three Border Patrol stations. This is the least of all nine sectors, some of which have 12. It ranks seventh among the nine sectors in the number of miles of border that must be guarded (126), so it is not unusual that it should be eighth in migrant apprehensions.
Yet despite these advantages, the Yuma sector shows how difficult “operational security” is to maintain, much less to define. In 2012, Yuma was one of four sectors to register an increase in migrant apprehensions — a 14 percent rise, with 40 percent of those caught coming from countries other than Mexico (principally Central America).
If immigration reform must wait until all nine border sectors have reached the standard of Yuma today, as Senators McCain and Rubio indicate, then immigration reform may have to wait a long time.
— Adam Isacson
In late 2010, DHS reported that it could respond to illegal activity along only 44 percent of the Southwest border, leaving 7,500 border miles inadequately protected.
The 44 percent statistic comes from a February 2011 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), based on interviews with Border Patrol. In the report, GAO found that Border Patrol had “operational control” of 873 miles of the 1,969-mile U.S.-Mexico border, or 44 percent. (The report did not investigate conditions at the United States’ 5,525-mile border with Canada, the remainder of Rep. McCaul’s 7,500-mile figure.)
Rep. McCaul’s statement implies that the term “operational control” means U.S. authorities “could respond to illegal activity.” In fact, the standard is significantly higher.
GAO defines operational control as “Border Patrol was able to detect, respond, and interdict cross-border illegal activity.” The 2006 Secure Fence Act has an even more stringent definition: “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband.”
By that standard, it is remarkable that U.S. authorities believed that they had so much control of 873 miles of terrain that nothing at all could cross the line. And the same GAO report found that, between 2005 and 2010, Border Patrol had added an average of 126 miles per year of border under operational control. If that rate continued in 2011 and 2012, then 1,125 miles of border — 57 percent — might be under operational control today.
We don’t know how much of the border is under operational control today, however. The Department of Homeland Security abandoned “operational control” as a measure of performance in 2011, opting instead for more of a “spectrum” or “continuum” approach than an “on or off” standard.
— Adam Isacson
Last November, the Republican Party majority of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management issued a report on border and hemispheric security. A Line in the Sand: Countering Crime, Violence and Terror at the Southwest Border alleges, among several other claims, that the U.S.-Mexico border is vulnerable to infiltration by Islamic terrorists seeking to do harm on U.S. soil.
“Of growing concern and potentially a more violent threat to American citizens is the enhanced ability of Middle East terrorist organizations, aided by their relationships and growing presence in the Western Hemisphere, to exploit the Southwest border to enter the United States undetected.”
The report calls on the U.S. government to mobilize against this vulnerability — which it compares to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis — before an attack materializes.
“Recognizing and proactively confronting threats has presented a perennial challenge to our country. In the case of the Cuban missile crisis, we failed to deal with the Soviet threat before it resulted in a full-blown crisis that threatened nuclear war. Now we are faced with a new threat in Latin America that comes from the growing collaborations between Iran, Venezuela, Hezbollah and transnational criminal organizations. Similar to the Cuban missile crisis, the evidence to compel action exists; the only question is whether we possess the imagination to connect the dots before another disaster strikes.”
To back up its argument that the U.S. government must make an even higher priority of the cross-border terrorism scenario, the Subcommittee cites the following pieces of “evidence to compel action.”
“In August 2007 former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell stated that not only have terrorists used the Southwest border to enter the United States but that they will inevitably continue to do so as long as it is an available possibility.”
This claim comes from an El Paso Times interview with former DNI McConnell. He does claim that “there are some” cases of terrorists coming across the Southwest border, but “not in great numbers.” When the interviewer tries repeatedly to get McConnell to be more specific, he replies:
It is unclear whether the “Iraqis” McConnell refers to where proven terrorists, or simply migrants.
“In a July 2012 hearing before the full U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano confirmed that terrorists have crossed the Southwest border with the intent to harm the American people.”
When pressed for more detail, Napolitano told Rep. Ron Barber (D-Arizona),
“With respect, there have been—and the Ababziar matter would be one I would refer to that’s currently being adjudicated in the criminal courts—from time to time, and we are constantly working against different and evolving threats involving various terrorist groups and various ways they may seek to enter the country.”
Napolitano provided no further information. As WOLA has noted before, the “Ababziar matter” involved Iranian operatives allegedly seeking help from Mexico’s Zetas criminal organization for a plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. But the Iranians, in fact, never ended up making contact with the Zetas.
The authors of the Subcommittee report are right that the hypothetical scenario of terrorists crossing the border from Mexico demands constant vigilance. It would be irresponsible to dismiss it.
But with the evidence they present — vague official statements, three cases with no mention of any intent to engage in terrorist activity — the authors of the report do not make the case that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies need to be more vigilant than they already are.
The amount of intelligence, military and law enforcement resources available to monitor potential threats is finite. With more immediate concerns in North Africa, Syria, Afghanistan-Pakistan and elsewhere, the resources available to monitor Latin America and the Caribbean are even more limited.
U.S. authorities must choose wisely how these resources get used. Organized crime, money laundering, arms, drug and human trafficking, corruption, and migrant deaths already pose daily challenges in the U.S.-Mexico border area.
Preparing for possible cross-border Islamic terrorism is a significant additional challenge, but the Subcommittee report acknowledges that it requires “imagination” at this point. The State Department, meanwhile, reported last July that “no known international terrorist organization had an operational presence in Mexico and no terrorist group targeted U.S. citizens in or from Mexican territory.”
In our view, the evidence presented in the Line in the Sand report is not compelling enough to justify diverting resources — whether existing or additional — away from challenges that U.S. personnel already face every day in the U.S.-Mexico border zone.
— Adam Isacson
"It’s simple to me to fix it. I think you control the border first. You create a pathway for those people that are here — you don’t say you’ve got to go home. And that is a position that I’ve evolved on. Because, you know what, it’s got to be resolved. The majority of people here, if some people have criminal records you can send them home, but if people are here, law-abiding, participating for years, their kids are born here, you know, first secure the border, pathway to citizenship, done."
Numerous leading Republicans appear to be adopting a pro-immigration reform stance in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s November 6 presidential election defeat, in which the Latino vote played an important role [PDF].
Like Hannity, though, many of these suddenly pro-reform figures stipulate that the border must first be secured before there can be movement toward comprehensive immigration reform.
"I have a simple request for the President and Congress: Secure our border first," reads a November 9 statement [PDF] from Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R). “Demonstrate that you take seriously the safety concerns of Americans living in the border region. With that completed, we can pursue – together – ways to fix our Nation’s broader immigration system in a fashion that is effective, practical and humane.”
"When you see this comprehensive immigration reform coming like a train, on our side, we are all very interested in that issue, but we have to have a high degree of confidence that our borders are secure," said Rep. Candace Miller (R-Michigan), chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security.
"Securing the border first" may prove to be an impossible standard to meet. Relying on this standard could become a means to postpone immigration reform indefinitely.
Though apprehensions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped by 61 percent between 2005 and 2011, the U.S. Border Patrol still apprehended 327,577 migrants there in 2011[PDF]. Though in fewer numbers, migrants are still able to get through.
Seizures of drugs in the U.S-Mexico border zone remain near all-time high levels [PDF, see page 50]. While this indicates more effectiveness at stopping drugs, it also shows that traffickers are not being deterred.
While crime statistics show that “spillover” of violence from Mexico is very rare, incidents do occur, like the September 2010 murder of a boater on Falcon Lake, Texas; the December 2010 murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in Arizona; and the October 2011 wounding of a sheriff’s deputy in Hidalgo County, Texas.
649 miles of the 1,954-mile border now has a fence running along it [PDF, see page 9], but most of the Texas-Mexico border along the winding Rio Grande remains unfenced. To build a fence, estimates Texas Governor Rick Perry (R-Texas), would “take 10 to 15 years and US$30 billion.”
The 2006 Secure Fence Act [PDF] set out the following definition for “operational control” of the border: “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband.”
Despite a large federal border-security buildup and a sharp reduction in migration and violence on the U.S. side of the border, that standard of preventing all unlawful entries remains far from met, and is likely to remain so.
"They’ll never secure the border 100 percent," the controversial sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, told the conservative Breitbart News website on November 13. “So it’s a cop-out so you don’t do anything in the interior.”
If opponents want to delay comprehensive immigration reform indefinitely, they can do so by insisting on “securing the border first.” It seems disingenuous, though, to do so while claiming to support immigration reform.
— Adam Isacson
“There’s no way to know at this point how the agent was killed, but because of Operation Fast and Furious, we’ll wonder for years if the guns used in any killing along the border were part of an ill-advised gunwalking strategy sanctioned by the federal government.”
Border Patrol Agent Nicholas Ivie, age 30, was shot and killed before dawn on the morning of October 2 in southeast Arizona near the Mexican border. He was one of three agents responding to a sensor that had detected movement five miles north of the border, in a rugged area frequently used by traffickers. “As they were walking up the trail, they reported taking gunfire,” Cochise County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carol Capas told Reuters. “We have unknown suspect or suspects at this point.”
Since we are not even sure what happened yet and whether the perpetrators were from Mexico, Sen. Grassley’s statement, which attempts to tie Agent Ivie’s death to the “Fast and Furious” scandal is troublingly premature.
In this scandal, documented again last month by a lengthy Justice Department Inspector-General report, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Phoenix, Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office allowed licensed gun vendors to sell over 2,000 weapons to people believed to be trafficking them across the border, and into the hands of Mexican criminal organizations. Operation “Fast and Furious” intended to track the purchasers in order to take down large-scale gun-trafficking organizations, but it was badly botched: only about 100 of the weapons sold were ever recovered. Too many of the rest have been used in violent crimes, including the 2010 killing in Arizona of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and the deaths of many Mexican citizens.
Even if the October 2 shooting turns out to have involved Mexican criminal organizations, the probability that the weapon used was obtained through “Fast and Furious” – as Sen. Grassley speculates – is quite low.
The scandal involved about 2,000 weapons. But between 2007 and 2011 alone, ATF traced a far larger number of weapons recovered by Mexican authorities – 68,161 in all – back to the United States. That represents 68.5 percent of all recovered weapons that Mexican authorities submitted to ATF for tracing during those years. This amount dwarfs “Fast and Furious” by comparison.
The vast majority of U.S.-sourced weapons recovered and used in crimes in Mexico, then, have nothing to do with “Fast and Furious.” Many of them are purchased from approximately 8,479 federal firearms licensees [PDF] in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
It is those purchases that “Fast and Furious” attempted, with tragic results, to detect and prevent. The likelihood that “Fast and Furious” weapons were used in Tuesday’s murder is relatively slim. But the likelihood that the weapons were purchased in the United States is significant.
– Adam Isacson