Homeland Security and Its Challenge in Securing America’s Borders

Introduction

The terrorist attack of September 11th, 2001 triggered the merger of several US government agencies to form the Department of Homeland Security. Following the terror attack of 9/11, analysis of the procedures of these agencies showed that they were effective in carrying out their respective duties but the only weakness was they were not sharing information efficiently. DHS was created to coordinate the functions of the various agencies and ensure that intelligence data collected could be used to prevent mishaps like prospective terrorists acquiring pilot licenses from aviation authorities who are in the dark. (2)

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Homeland security has certainly streamlined certain functions like intelligence gathering but its specific duties are still a grey area because the majority of its functions involve “stepping on toes” or “invading the turf” of other more established agencies. It could be a bureaucratic nightmare in the making especially with the debacle of Hurricane Katrina where everything that could go wrong went wrong.

America’s Borders

The role of securing America’s borders lies with the US Customs and Border Protection (CPB), which is under the Department of Homeland Security. Most citizens consider its main role to be preventing terrorists and illegal immigrants from entering the United States. Its other mundane roles involve “regulating and facilitating international trade, collecting import duties and enforcing trade, drug, and immigration laws.” (2)

Certain terrorist attacks that have occurred around the world like the Mumbai attacks in India or the Beslan School Massacre in Russia have exposed the weaknesses of these countries borders’ regardless of the strength of their militaries. In both of these attacks, the terrorists were not only able to pass through the borders unscathed; they also carried with them their tools of the trade which was some serious firepower.

America is no different. With a Navy and Air force, that is bigger than that of the other top five nations combined, America’s military machine is a force to reckon with and the possibility of another nation or nations directly invading their borders is highly unlikely. Besides these facts, the vast Pacific and Atlantic oceans have been a natural barrier towards any form of invasion like the one witnessed on the beaches of Normandy. Even though they might have suffered economically in both world wars, the American backyard remained relatively intact which was unlike its allies Britain and France. Besides Pearl Harbor, you will have to be really determined to launch and sustain an attack across these vast oceans.

With the cold war over, the face of modern warfare is changing with guerilla and terrorist tactics being employed by various rogue elements. This was evident in 9/11 when a couple of guys were able to inflict a level of carnage that even the respected Iraqi Army could only hope to achieve during the 1st phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The greatest threat to US national security, therefore, has to shift to the security of its home borders and this falls under the mandate of Homeland Security.

Whether they are up to the job will be judged on their effectiveness in preventing another terrorist attack; including those of a slightly smaller scale than 9/11. Before we begin probing the effectiveness of their duties in securing our home borders, let us first look at the various entry points into the United States and the weakness (or strengths from a terrorist’s or illegal immigrant’s view) they have. (2)

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The US Coastline

As explained earlier, the isolation of the North American continent from other landmasses (besides Central and South America) has made the possibility of any illegal sea expeditions highly unlikely. Countries in Europe like Greece, Spain, and Italy have had to play cat and mouse games on the high seas with illegal immigrants originating from Africa. America has been spared this, with the only threat from the high seas being a hurricane or a military threat and this falls under the jurisdiction of the Navy.

This situation does however change when you move to the south coast and specifically in Miami, where immigrants from Cuba have been arriving illegally for decades. It is fair to assume that even though the US Coast Guard has been monitoring and blocking this stretch of coastline for some time, they have never really executed the law to the full extent in an effort to stop this tide of human traffic.

This is attributed to the frosty relations between Cuba and Washington in that America has always offered a safe haven to people escaping the Communist regime of Fidel Castro. The possibility of Cuba being a transit point for a terrorist trying to make it to the United States is also highly unlikely since Cuba has always been isolated from the world community due to the sanctions imposed by Washington and if that ever happened, the fallout would work to the disadvantage of the Cuban Regime.

The major chink in this armor is probably in the seaports and harbors as ships are docking. The threat of stowaways has never disappeared but it has been greatly minimized through the implementation of certain technologies. The use of large-scale X-rays and Gamma Imaging systems by the Customs and Border Protection officers have literally eliminated the possibility of a stowaway sneaking through the system. Their main area of focus has shifted to identifying hazardous material and these include chemical, nuclear, or simply a large cache of arms. The only weakness in the Homeland Security system is that some of these expensive imaging systems haven’t been distributed nationwide therefore more funding is required. (2)

The Nation’s Airports

Airport security has always been at the top of the security checklist even before the 9/11 attacks. The measures undertaken were meant to discourage and catch a drug trafficker or any criminal elements trying to sneak into or out of the US. The current legislation is satisfactory due to the stringent measures undertaken by the State Department before a foreigner can be allowed to travel to the United States. A visa requirement is necessary except for countries like Britain, Canada, France plus 24 others. Furthermore, for a foreign airline to be allowed to fly directly to the United States, it has to satisfy strict FAA requirements in its home country. Their respective airports have to meet certain security and safety requirements. A direct flight to the United States is regarded as the pinnacle of commercial aviation. (1)

The only weakness lies in identifying people who are entering the country with legitimate papers but may have an illegal agenda. Cross-referencing passengers’ names with the terrorist database is a common practice in every US airport. The major challenge usually lies in updating this database regularly without infringing on the rights of these citizens. The 9/11 terrorists slipped through the system not because they used fake passports to enter the country but because their names were not on any database. Even though some of them had appeared on the intelligence radar, the vast bureaucracy of the previous system made it impossible to know which person should be flagged down immediately and which one to be kept on a short leash. Homeland Security must find a way to get rid of these loopholes and bottlenecks. (2)

The Canada and Mexico Borders

The land borders provide the biggest challenge to Homeland security. The US-Canadian border is as secure as a county’s border can get. Cases of illegal immigration are quite rare due to the economic prosperity of both nations. Using Canada as a transit point for sneaking illegally into the US is probably ill-advised due to the strict regulations in both countries. A less conspicuous nation like Mexico would be a better idea. The US-Mexico border on the other hand provides a whole new set of challenges.

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While the other entry points are under tight lock and key, this border is child’s play. Stretching from San Diego California to Brownsville Texas, it is over 1900 miles long and it is “the most frequently crossed international border in the world.” (1) Thousands of illegal immigrants stream in across the border each day, and the CPB officers are helpless in stopping this wave of human traffic.

Funds directed to homeland security have enabled the purchase of UAVs and more helicopters but this has done little to reverse the tide. Initially, the major concern with this porous border was the number of drugs and contraband that was passing through. These drug runners had proved to be quite innovative in beating the system in that they could still get hundreds of tons of their stuff onto US streets despite the efforts of DEA and other agencies. The greatest fear is that this experience earned in the drug business could be used to ferry terrorists into the US; at a fee.

It is not a far-fetched notion bearing in mind that these drug barons are criminals in the first place, therefore, expecting them to display some sense of morality when easy dollars are dangled in front of their face is too much of an ask. Furthermore, the 18, 000 border patrol officials required to be patrolling this border are simply too few bearing in mind the harshness of the terrain. Even if the so-called terrorists are caught, it is difficult to differentiate them from the other illegal immigrants. They are simply booked and sent back to Mexico. (1)

Weaknesses in the Current Legislations

The airports and coastlines do not pose a big challenge like the land borders; especially the US-Mexico border. “A recent congressional Homeland security report accused Venezuela of offering support to terrorists who might want to enter the US through the porous Mexico-Texas border.” (2) Thousands of fake identity documents that could make the difference in evading border officials at immigration checks were traced to Hugo Chavez’s administration. Adding to this, still, according to the Homeland Security report, 5 Pakistanis were caught on the US-Mexico border with fake Venezuelan documents.

In another incident in August 2006, “an Afghani man was found swimming across the Rio Grande River in Hidalgo.”(2) It is very clear now that the previously ignored illegal immigration points are being utilized by terrorists to sneak into the US to carry out their plots. More recently, outgoing President George W Bush authorized the construction of a 700-mile border along the US-Mexico border. The advocates of this barrier were more interested in minimizing illegal immigration, especially in the southwestern states. Whether this would remove the threat of terrorism is something that looks highly unlikely and there are two reasons for this.

First of all, the possibility that you might actually be caught is the greatest deterrent to committing any criminal activity. The time you might serve in prison might deter you slightly but that won’t matter if you are more than 90% sure you will get away with the crime.

Most of these illegal immigrants that might also include terrorists are fully aware that there are probably UAVs, orbiting satellites, and helicopters looking down on them as they are sprinting across the border. The only consolation they have is that over 97% of their relatives or friends who have attempted this journey have made it to the other side. Therefore, even if you erect a fence and you do not have enough boots on the ground, the immigrants will just punch a hole through it and make a run for it. If there is no border patrol on the other side waiting for him; he’s home free. (1)

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The second reason is the illegal immigrants caught do not face any serious criminal charges. Even if they are caught at the newly constructed perimeter fences with a pair of pliers and a screwdriver, the likelihood of spending even a night in jail is next to impossible.

The problem is according to the Department of Homeland Security; over half a million illegal immigrants arrested are simply released and given notices to appear in court because there aren’t enough resources available to detain such a huge number. It’s no surprise that only 70-90% of them honor their court dates. The figure that we should be really worried about is of the half a million arrested and released illegal immigrants, the known criminals are about 85,000 and they are simply released because deporting such a huge number of illegal aliens requires funds and human resources. There is something seriously wrong with the current legislation and the DHS needs to come up with solutions; fast!

A Path in the Right Direction

Recently, there has been a crackdown by the Mexican government on the drug cartels operating in the country. Thousands of military personnel have been deployed on the towns near the US border and similarly, their US counterparts have increased the number of vehicles being checked to go into Mexico. The result is the violence has not spilled over to the US side of the border which shows that if both nations are serious about tackling illegal immigration at their border, the vice can be drastically reduced.

Even if the drug wars in Mexico are outside the jurisdiction of Homeland Security, the recent joint security effort between the two countries shows that the first step towards securing the US-Mexico border should be to invite Mexico to the table before drafting any policies. Currently, the security of this border is a one-man show and he appears to be losing. The government has also increased funding for border security from $4.8 billion in 2001 to $12.3 Billion in 2008.

The numbers of agents patrolling our nation’s borders are set to double from 9000 in 2001 to 18000 by the end of 2008. The DHS is also about to complete the “370 miles of pedestrian fencing along the southwest border by the end of 2008.” (1) The biometric scanners that have been installed in the nation’s airports have angered a lot of foreign travelers but everyone agrees they have been a good enough deterrent to anyone trying to enter the US with fake documents.

Recent attention has been drawn to the 27 countries whose members are not required to get a visa to travel to the US. It has been realized that some rogue elements might try to obtain passports from these countries then use them to enter the US where they know their details would not be screened in the terrorist databases. All of this will likely change with the introduction of the Visa Tracking Law which many security experts believe will close a loophole that has been extensively abused in the immigration laws.

Information sharing not only between government agencies but with other agencies around the world is a path Homeland Security has to follow. The major hick-up has always been the lack of trust that exists amongst the spy agencies around the world. While the US, Canada, Britain, and Australia have no problem sharing information, the problem comes in when the likes of Pakistan who are integral in the fight against Al-Qaeda appear to be sitting on the fence in the war on terror. The situation is further worsened when allegations that they are aiding the Taliban are leveled towards them. However, the situation is slowly improving and this can be seen by the Pakistani Army’s recent incursion to the Swat valley to dethrone the Taliban.

Conclusion

Finding the silver bullet that would solve the terrorist threats that are facing America is a far-fetched dream. The thing is, what irks most of these groups is not the American people themselves but what we believe in; every man has a right to be free. This statement is the hallmark of the Truman doctrine and it is the justification America has used to free Afghanistan from the Taliban, Iraq from Saddam Hussein, and hopefully the religion of Islam from its violent past. This cycle of violence can be minimized by increasing spending on military hardware like UAVs but it won’t eliminate it. Building a concrete wall along the US-Mexico Border does seem like a good solution and bearing in mind that this country can afford it. (2)

What Homeland Security and the Government should realize is that they are not only fighting a human force which is represented by the terrorists, they are also fighting a belief that keeps on inspiring more suicide bombers. This jihadist mentality can only be countered if America appears to be representing ideals that it has always stood for. This can only be achieved through the type of legislation they are passing; not by inventing the next killing machine that produces the least amount of collateral damage.

The immigration and border security policies should be firm enough for the sake of national security but they should not infringe on the rights of foreigners who are in the country legally. A more diplomatic tone should be adopted when dealing with other countries in the war on terror. Banging your fists on the table and utterances like “you are either with us or with the terrorists” only isolate America. (2)

Works Cited

  1. Haines David W, Rosenblum Karen Elaine, Illegal Immigration in America, GreenWood Publishing Group, 1999, pp 432-445.
  2. Kettl, Donald F, System Under Stress: Homeland Security and American Politics, CQ Press, 2004, pp 78-92.
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