From an influx of Central American minors to concerns about ISIL and Ebola, the public image of the U.S.-Mexico border has taken a beating in recent weeks. Fortunately, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson rebutted some of the most common misperceptions in an important speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC yesterday.
While heart-rending images of unaccompanied children in detention centers remain vivid in our collective memory, Johnson made clear that the number of migrants is dramatically lower than it was when the surge began several months ago. As his deputy secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, said at a separate event at NDN last month, ultimate victory requires addressing the root causes of migration—namely, serious insecurity in the Northern Triangle of Central America—but at least the numbers are moving in the right direction. Johnson also discredited claims that four terrorists had crossed the border, and said that the government is intensifying efforts to protect U.S. citizens from Ebola.
In addition to dispelling these fears, Johnson declared a commitment to “more transparency about our border security,” delivering a thorough review of the huge investments made over the last 15 years in the Border Patrol, which has grown to become one of the largest agencies of the U.S. government (within the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security). Illegal migration peaked in 2000, with 1.6 million apprehensions that year, but has dramatically declined since then to around 400,000 apprehensions a year in recent years—a trend that Johnson credited in part to economic conditions in both the U.S. and Mexico, but also in large measure to the “deterrent factor” of border security.As Representative Beto O’Rourke tweeted yesterday, one particular line graph in Johnson’s Power Point presentation clearly summarizes the facts of border security—the upwardly trending line of Border Patrol agents, who increased by 111 percent between FY2000 and FY2014, and the downwardly trending line of apprehensions, which decreased by 59 percent over the same period.
It’s no wonder, then, that O’Rourke and others in Congress have argued that increased border security is not the answer. The border has never been more secure, yet long and unpredictable wait times for cross-border business raise transaction costs for both the U.S. and Mexican economies. As Congress has provided tens of billions of dollars for Border Patrol agents (who wear green uniforms), funding has lagged for the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, who dress in dark blue and manage trade flows worth trillions of dollars. As Representative Henry Cuellar is fond of saying, it’s time to hire more “men and women in blue,” instead of just emphasizing the green.
In looking to the future of border security efforts, Johnson wisely rejected any approach based on building fences. Instead, he called for a “risk-based strategy,” with resources concentrated on border areas that intelligence sources consider to be under the greatest threat. Johnson also announced the creation of three new department task forces to direct the border security resources of agencies such as CBP and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a department-wide southern border campaign plan.
Johnson’s recognition that homeland security requires striking a balance should be welcomed. Part of that balance, as the Council of the Americas’ North American Border and Competitiveness Initiative has argued, involves the facilitation of legal trade with Mexico, which has become not only the third-largest trading partner to the United States, but also a joint production platform for integrated sectors of the two economies.
The Economist’s Lexington summed up the dynamics very well in a recent column: “Shouting about deadly foreigners is sexier than trying to cut the costs of cross-border supply chains. But the latter would make America richer.”