Posts tagged U.S. Congress
Posts tagged U.S. Congress
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)
“[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
“Washington has failed miserably when it comes to securing our borders. While the federal government refuses to protect our borders, Arizona taxpayers continue to pay the price in the form of increased crime and drugs in our communities.”
“[T]he situation along the border has changed significantly. In years past, groups of illegal aliens crossing the southern border tied to drug or smuggling cartels were the exception to the rule. Today, such ties are the rule. The lawless situation in northern Mexico largely driven by drug cartels is fueling lawlessness north of the border.”
Both of the principal contenders in Arizona’s hotly contested primary campaign to choose a Republican Senate candidate believe that an insecure border is contributing to “increased crime and drugs” and “lawlessness” in their state.
The Arizona state government’s Department of Public Safety publishes ten years’ worth of Crime in Arizona Reports detailing criminal activity in each of Arizona’s fifteen counties. We looked at the ten counties that make up the southernmost half of the state, and would thus be most susceptible to any cross-border activity. (These ten counties also comprise 89 percent of Arizona’s population, according to U.S. Census data, so the statewide trend is not much different than what we observe here.)
We found that despite the candidates’ views of the border, measures of violent crime are substantially lower now than they were a decade ago in Arizona’s counties closest to the border.
Homicides in these counties are down 17.9 percent from 2002 to 2011, from 363 to 298.
Robberies in these counties are down 11.6 percent from 2002 to 2011, from 7,744 to 6,842.
Cases of aggravated assault in these counties are down 24.5 percent from 2002 to 2011, from 17,837 to 13,471.
Rep. Flake says that the rising crime reflects an “increasingly dangerous” situation that is so bad that “border security must be addressed before other [immigration] reforms are tackled.” We would ask him, and his opponent, where they are seeing violent crime worsening in Arizona as a result of an insecure border. Their own state government’s data tell a very different story.
Here are the tables of data, drawn from the Crime in Arizona Reports, used to make the above charts.
By Adam Isacson
“We are highly concerned that these closures will undercut proven methods to intercept drug smugglers, human traffickers and illegal immigrants in corridors that they use extensively north of the U.S.-Mexico border. We urge you in the strongest terms to rescind the decision.”
— 12 Republican Representatives’ response to a June 22 announcement that the U.S. Border Patrol would be closing seven out of the 73 stations it maintains near the U.S.-Mexico border. It came in a July 20 letter [PDF] to the chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
CBP explained that closing the stations — all of them more than 100 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border — plus two in Idaho and Montana, would allow it to move 41 agents closer to the northern and southern borders. US$1.3 million would be saved by closing small stations in Abilene, Amarillo, Dallas, Lubbock, San Angelo and San Antonio, Texas; Riverside, California; and (near Canada) Billings, Montana and Twin Falls, Idaho.
A report on the Fox News website contends that the closure will “undercut efforts to intercept drug and human traffickers in well-traveled corridors north of the U.S.-Mexico border.” It adds, “one soon-to-be-shuttered station in Amarillo, Texas, is right in the middle of the I-40 corridor.” Reading the same story further, however, reveals that the Amarillo station presently hosts only two Border Patrol agents to cover this entire “corridor.”
The CBP explanation didn’t satisfy the twelve legislators, either, whose letter to Chief David Aguilar makes a bizarre, unsourced charge using the passive voice.
“Fears have also been expressed that your plan is part of a systematic attempt to dismantle interior enforcement of our immigration laws and give illegal immigrants a ‘free pass’ should they successfully cross the border.”
Here is a map of all 73 of the Border Patrol’s U.S.-Mexico border-sector stations, indicating the seven to be closed with red markers. The map makes clear that CBP is closing some of the stations most distant from the border. The station in Amarillo, in the Texas panhandle, is 418 miles by road from the nearest border port of entry.
(View Border Patrol Sectors and Stations in a larger map)
Here is a chart of the U.S. Border Patrol’s nine sectors along the U.S.-Mexico land border. They are organized according to the number of undocumented migrants apprehended in each during 2011. (Click to enlarge it.)
Apprehensions data from U.S. Border Patrol.
As we hope this chart makes evident, in sectors that are seeing very little migration, CBP is closing a small fraction of stations most distant from the border. U.S. taxpayers will no longer have to pay the cost of maintaining these seven stations.
By Adam Isacson
“[T]here have been [terrorists crossing our southern border with the intent to do harm to the American people] from time to time.”
This “time to time” quote was Secretary Napolitano’s response to a question from Rep. Ron Barber (D-Arizona) at a July 25 hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee. The full exchange was as follows:
Rep. Barber: “As you know, Madam Secretary, there have been anecdotal reports about material evidence of the presence of terrorists along our southern border. My question is, is there any credible evidence that these reports are accurate and that terrorists are, in fact, crossing our southern border with the intent to do harm to the American people?”
Secretary Napolitano: “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.”
Six days after this exchange, the Department of State released its annual Country Reports on Terrorism report. Within the opening paragraph of its Mexico chapter is the following:
“No known international terrorist organization had an operational presence in Mexico and no terrorist group targeted U.S. citizens in or from Mexican territory.”
It would seem that the State and Homeland Security Departments need to get their story straight on this very important national security issue.
By Adam Isacson
“For too long, criminal cartels have been able to construct and use illegal cross-border tunnels to smuggle weapons, drugs and people across our border, without facing adequately harsh consequences. This bill is an important step in our efforts to secure our Southern border.”
— Rep. Ben Quayle (R-Arizona), in a statement upon the passage of the Border Tunnel Prevention Act (H.R. 4119), which he co-sponsored with Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas).
This new law’s impact is likely to be less important than Rep. Quayle contends. The Border Tunnel Prevention Act, which President Obama signed on June 5, tightens penalties for people caught building tunnels under the U.S.-Mexico border for smuggling purposes.
However, an analysis from the U.S. Congressional Budget Office noted that the Act would cost the U.S. government very little to enforce because it “would apply to a relatively small number of additional offenders.”
Critics of the bill, like Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), argue that the Border Tunnel Prevention Act offers the illusion of action while giving law enforcement little in the way of new tools to improve border security.
“We should not be decorating the criminal code with more and more pages. We ought to be simplifying the code. While I do think border tunnels are a serious problem, I believe we already have adequate laws with very harsh penalties to deal with the problem.”
By Adam Isacson