Border security reaches point of diminishing returns, says report

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The United States has reached a point of diminishing returns when it comes to security deployments along the southwestern border, says a year-long study conducted by the Washington Office on Latin America and Mexico's College of the Northern Border.

The study (.pdf) notes that U.S. apprehensions of illegal immigrants on the border with Mexico have dropped to levels not seen since the early 1970s and that no member of a group on the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist organizations has been detected attempting to cross the Mexico-U.S. border with intent to do harm.  

"Only drug trafficking has continued unabated, calling into question the increased security presence's deterrent effect," the report states.

Violence caused by drug traffickers in Mexico has had little direct impact on public security within the United States, the report adds. Most American border cities, despite their location directly opposite Mexican cities that are the site of horrific drug cartel violence, are experiencing 50-year lows in homicides. In 2010, El Paso, Texas--just on the other side of the Rio Grande river from Ciudad Juarez, a city now infamous for the ferocity of its drug violence--had in 2010 the lowest homicide rate of all U.S. cites with more than 500,000 residents, the report adds.

Ranchers in remote areas do report feeling less safe, but drug cartels are in the curious position of having active diminishment of violence on the U.S. side of the border be in their best interest since spill over would undermine the flow of drugs.  

In any case, most drugs aren't transported through the wilderness, but rather through official land ports of entry, the report says. Here, report authors note that the Customs and Border Protection components responsible for manning the ports, the Office of Field Operations has been underfunded relative to the Border Patrol, which operates between ports of entry.

"For political leaders, the image of agents sitting in booths at a port of entry is less compelling than that of roving Border Patrol agents in pickup trucks (or on horseback) guarding against terrorists, criminals and migrants," they say.

Overall, the rapid buildup of personnel and assets along the border has had negative consequences, the report says, adding that although it has had a deterrent effect on attempted illegal crossings, just as important as dissuading would-be undocumented aliens has been lower employment prospects in the United States and "the dangerous gauntlet of criminal organizations, kidnappers, and corrupt officials through which they must pass on the Mexican side of the border."

Among the negative consequences has been to create increased opportunities for recruitment among illegal immigrants and hastily-recruited Border Patrol agents by organized crime and abuse by border enforcement agents of undocumented aliens. The number of per capita deaths made during illegal crossing attempts is also on the rise, the report says.

Report authors also say the presence of the National Guard on the border could strike a bad precedent in creating a domestic role for the military. Defense officials themselves have expressed concern about deployments to the southwestern border, since border security isn't a core mission.

What's ultimately needed is a unified--and ideally binational--strategy, the authors conclude, one that would guide cooperation, intelligence-sharing, accountability, and humanitarian guidelines.

"It would fill a gaping vacuum left by today's fragmented approach that, though designed to detect terrorists and drug traffickers, mostly ends up targeting people who want a better life," the report states.

For more:
- download the report "Beyond the Border Buildup; Security and Migrants Along the U.S.-Mexico Border" (.pdf)

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