Most measures of security at the U.S.-Mexico border have improved dramatically since the 1990s. Still, border security is not perfect, and there remain common-sense steps that the United States could take to enhance it. A “wall” shouldn’t make this list, though.
Wall-building doesn’t make much of a difference in the remote, rural parts of the border where no fencing presently exists. A wall isn’t much of a barrier, really: it slows individuals down for the 10 or 15 minutes it takes to climb over. In a densely populated area, where authorities can respond quickly, that 10 or 15 minutes makes a big difference. But nearly all of these areas already have high fences, because of the building that followed the Secure Fence Act of 2006. In empty or wilderness areas, where it can take agents an hour or more just to arrive or where there are no roads—this probably describes about half of the border—reducing a crosser’s head start by 10 to 15 minutes is hardly a deterrent. And keep in mind that the illegal drugs that have Americans most concerned right now, heroin and methamphetamine, mostly cross the border at the official ports of entry, not the vast spaces in between where the proposed wall would go.
It’s important to remember that less than half of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border are Mexican. This is a result of changing demographics, increased internal migration, and limited but measurable job creation in Mexico. Instead, the majority are coming from Central America, where entire families—and often children by themselves—are fleeing violence and persecution. More border security won’t deter scared Central American kids and families who, requesting asylum, don’t seek to evade Border Patrol agents after they cross: they turn themselves in.
With migration down to levels not seen since the early 1970s, other indicators are also going the right way. Seizures of the illegal drug most trafficked between the ports of entry, marijuana, are down significantly. Violent crime is remarkably low on the U.S. side of the border: FBI data show that, of 23 cities over 100,000 population within 100 miles of the border, only 3 had homicide rates above the national average. And Border Patrol has seen a notable decrease in use of lethal force.
So what should the United States be doing?
Our 52 land ports of entry—the border crossings through which people, vehicles, and cargo pass—face significant challenges. Infrastructure is dilapidated: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has identified about $5 billion in construction and renovation needs. They are so understaffed that entering the United States routinely takes an hour or two of waiting in line, like at a supermarket before Thanksgiving. And still, traffickers aren’t deterred: legal ports of entry are the main methods of smuggling heroin, methamphetamine and other high-value, low-volume illegal drugs into the United States.
Whether it’s staff at the ports of entry or Border Patrol agents, DHS hiring procedures are a mess. Background checks, polygraph tests, and other anti-corruption measures were strengthened by a 2010 law, which is great. But these measures didn’t get the funding they needed to implement them properly, and screeners are overstretched. As a result, while there have been modest improvements since 2015, that year it took more than 460 days, on average, to hire a new Customs and Border Protection officer or Border Patrol agent. Border Patrol cannot even keep up with staff attrition: it needs to hire 1,000 agents each year to avoid shrinking, but its procedures can’t keep up. There were 1,585 fewer Border Patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2016 than in 2013, and not because of budget cuts.
While stopping the attrition makes sense, a big buildup of Border Patrol personnel does not. Border Patrol already doubled in size between 2005 and 2011, and quintupled in size between 1993 and 2011. In the area between the ports of entry where Border Patrol operates, the returns to be had for additional personnel are diminishing quickly. As migrant apprehensions have plummeted and staffing has risen, the number of apprehended migrants per Border Patrol agent is one tenth what it was in 2000: 24 migrants per agent per year in 2016.
Hiring more screeners, and making sure the background check process has the resources it needs, makes clear sense. But lowering standards or rushing screening does not. As organized crime activity poses a constant risk of both armed confrontation and the temptation of corruption, CBP and Border Patrol agents must be held to a very high standard of accountability. Yet a March 2016 independent review commissioned by DHS warned of a troubling lack of use of force and anti-corruption protections, finding CBP “vulnerable to a corruption scandal that could potentially threaten the security of our nation.”
It is crucial to continue the modest gains in accountability and transparency that took place during the latter years of the Obama administration, including revamped use of force guidelines and strengthened internal affairs agencies. The Trump administration’s proposal to hire 5,000 more Border Patrol agents, increasing the force by a quarter, is not only unnecessary—it would be disastrous for the institution if it happens in a context of eroding human rights and corruption protections.
The system for adjudicating asylum and refugee protection claims needs to be reformed. An increase in violence has forced hundreds of thousands of Central American families and unaccompanied children to flee to neighboring countries, including the United States. But the Department of Justice still has only 300 judges nationwide to decide whether migrants deserve protected status, after an increase of 65 in the past two years. A Central American parent and child who show up at the border and ask U.S. agents for protection will be added to a judge’s ballooning docket, their case likely in limbo until 2019 or later. Access to legal counsel is a key factor in successful asylum claims. According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), families with access to immigration lawyers have a “more than fourteen-fold” greater chance of receiving asylum status than those who did not have lawyers.
Border Patrol’s ability to cover remote areas, meanwhile, remains inadequate. Drones, radar-equipped aerostats, tower-mounted cameras, and other technology have given unprecedented visibility over what is crossing. Sometimes this includes drug smugglers but often this includes migrants in distress, wandering lost in scorching desert heat. But much of what gets detected is in areas so remote that a Border Patrol agent could spend most of his or her shift simply driving to the site where a gadget recorded an incident. Instead of adding more Border Patrol agents nationwide, the agency will need to redeploy its personnel more flexibly, whether spending days at a time in rustic “forward operating posts” or relocating temporarily from the majority of “quieter” sectors to the minority of busier ones.
The U.S. government, meanwhile, should do more to overcome a key obstacle: corrupt links between organized crime and government in many Mexican localities. These local linkages enabled atrocities like the 2010 murder of 72 mostly Central American migrants near the U.S. border, and the notorious 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero who were last seen in police custody. U.S. agencies must prioritize supporting brave reformers inside and outside Mexico’s government.
The changes we propose here may sound like tweaks—and they are, as they will cost a fraction of President Trump’s proposals. But tweaks are all that are needed right now: despite what we often hear, there is no security emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border. (The flow of Central Americans fleeing violence is a humanitarian emergency, but not a security threat.) Challenges remain, and require maintenance of a strong border. But grandiose, expensive proposals that antagonize our neighbor and endanger people seeking refuge are simply unnecessary.