AL DÍA:Traveling the Texas-Mexico Border

3/7/2012, Eric Olson and Chris Wilson of the Mexico Institute are currently driving the  Texas-Mexico border, beginning in El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, ending in Brownsville/Matamoros, and blogging along the way.

We are back from our trip to the Texas-Mexico border and thought we would offer some preliminary conclusions about border management.

There are several positive developments worth noting: There are still no signs of terrorist traffic according to any of the officials and non-governmental sources we met. Improved systems and technology now provide CBP with more information about the people and commercial products seeking to enter the United States than was the case before 2001.

The identity of each individual crossing the border is established and checked against a plethora of law enforcement and intelligence databases. We saw signs of significant engagement between CBP, the private sector and local government in efforts to improve the flow of legitimate travel and trade. Several ports of entry (POEs) have been opened and/or expanded, increasing the capacity for the efficient crossing of goods and people.

There is clearly space for creative problem solving at both the policy (ie Washington) and enforcement (ie border) levels. We saw creative procedures to rapidly convert  vehicle lanes into pedestrian checkpoints to handle peak times, the nearly complete remotely monitored Boquillas crossing, and strong interagency cooperation in some locations.

Though there is much to celebrate, there are also significant challenges that remain in the effort to support security and commerce at the border. These are a few areas that appear ripe for improvements:

  1. Metrics: The amount of time a shipment or individual waits in line before entering the country varies considerably from POE to POE and from one day to the next. Long and unpredictable wait times add costs to US and Mexican businesses alike, while also deterring the cross-border shoppers that are the lifeblood of US border city retailers. Unfortunately, data on border wait times is inconsistent and unreliable. A single, sound methodology for the collection of this important data has not been implemented. In order to identify best practices in border management techniques and to assign resources to the POEs that need them most, accurate and comprehensive data on wait times is essential.
  2. Risk Management: Many CBP officers have several years of experience at our nation’s border, allowing them to instinctively identify suspicious anomalies in an individual or vehicle. They can be even more effective when additional information about a particular shipment or person is made available ahead of time, or even as the individual arrives at the POE. License plate readers, for example, allow the officer to crosscheck some information volunteered by an individual with electronic records. Voluntary trusted traveler and trusted shipper programs provide CBP with data needed to more accurately assess the risk presented by someone seeking entry to the United States. Frequent crossers can enroll in these programs by providing CBP with additional documents, undergoing background checks, and taking steps to secure their supply chains. In return, they are offered expedited processing at the borders, which incentivizes their participation in the programs.
    While these programs are successful in some places, it appears that more could be done to encourage enrollment. Many ports are unable to provide the reduced wait times that would be an incentive to join the trusted traveler and shipper programs. For some, costs and complicated steps for enrollment can be prohibitive. Greater experimentation in the promotion and implementation of these programs (SENTRI, CTPAT, FAST, and the use of Ready Lanes for those with WHTI compliant documents) would be a useful tool in developing best practices for improving security while facilitating commerce.
  3. Intelligence-based Enforcement: Federal law enforcement at the border cannot be expected to shut down all illicit traffic. Despite major advances in border management since 2001, it appears quite clear that a significant amount of illicit traffic continues to cross US borders. Comparing the anecdotal information we received about drug seizures in the border region to the estimated amount of drugs imported and consumed in the United States suggests that the vast majority of drugs such as cocaine, are, in fact, successfully smuggled across the border. One possible response to this reality could be a massive increase in inspections at the border. In the days immediately after 9/11, this was the approach to border security. The Canadian and Mexican borders were virtually shut down, closing the United States off from its number one and three trading partners. In addition to halting commerce, it stopped the flow of individuals, keeping students away from their schools, shoppers out of our stores, and family member apart from their relatives.

    A better response would be to acknowledge that neither northbound nor southbound illicit traffic can be stopped entirely at the physical border and instead focus on risks and threats before they reach the border.  In terms of terrorism, this means that groups must be monitored overseas and their members identified before entering North America. Several steps have been taken to do this, and we were told that there is no evidence of terrorist activity along the southwest border. Drugs, guns, and illicit money are also significant issues; their traffic feeds organized crime-related violence in Mexico and damages communities in the United States. Increasing the number of US investigators focused on the collection and distribution points of illicit trafficking networks and further strengthening our support of Mexico’s police, prosecutors, and judges seems like a more effective way to fight illicit traffic than increasing the Border Patrol or National Guard presence along the border.

  4. Balance: Border management changed significantly after September 11, 2001. CBP’s primary mission is to prevent terrorists and instruments of terror from entering the United States. This is obviously crucial to our national security. Nonetheless, a narrow focus on combating terrorism on the Southwest border can lead to a type of tunnel vision. On a daily basis, CBP must facilitate commercial traffic (also part of its mission) and disrupt the flow of unauthorized immigrants and smuggled goods (not directly mentioned in the CBP mission). In the best of cases, CBP supervisors, agents, and officers find ways to balance the need to protect our nation’s security and economy. We met with several people who clearly understood this and sought creative ways to meet the challenge of CBP’s dual mission. Others seemed inflexible, using the primacy of the security mission as a justification for tolerating long wait times for trucks, cars, and pedestrians attempting to cross.  Relationships with local border communities, their governments and the private sector suffered as a result.

    Effectively balancing CBP’s missions to ensure security and a competitive border isn’t easy, but we saw signs that it is very much within reach. Greater balance is also needed between Border Patrol, who protect the areas between the ports of entry, and the Office of Field Operations (OFO), who protect the ports of entry. Over the past two decades, Border Patrol has grown exponentially while OFO has experienced modest growth. Marijuana is trafficked both between the POEs and through them. The same is true for the entry of unauthorized immigrants. When it comes to hard drugs, however, like cocaine and methamphetamine, the vast majority of traffic appears to be through the official ports of entry. Some we met with attributed the imbalance to a lack of understanding among some Members of Congress over the difference in responsibilities between the Border Patrol and OFO. Others suggest that a national constituency has developed for Border Patrol without a corresponding increase of public support for OFO. Whatever the reason, it is time for a rebalancing of these forces to better reflect the current risks and vulnerabilities (in terms of economics and security) at the border.

–Christopher E. Wilson

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