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Is the Border Broken? Rethinking the Conventional Wisdom

The Mexico Institute in conjunction with the Immigration Policy Center, hosted a discussion with key researches and policy makers to discuss the complexities of U.S.-Mexico border policies.

Date & Time

Sep. 12, 2011
4:00pm – 4:00pm ET


Does border enforcement prevent terrorism? How effectively does it reduce contraband trafficking? To what extent should corresponding investments in physical barriers, technology, and personnel, which have been massive in the past ten years, be directed elsewhere besides the southwestern border? If not terrorists and other national security risks, who is being stopped at the southwestern border? And do the apprehensions of economic migrants from Latin America, who represent the vast majority of apprehensions, improve national security or are they instead distractions from true threats?

The nation’s borders became the focus of an enhanced enforcement response following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2001. Strengthened border enforcement was seen as essential to securing the nation by preventing the entry of unauthorized persons. However, at the southwestern border, no known terrorist has ever been apprehended, and critics say current policies, involving increased numbers of U.S. Border Patrol agents, the construction of fencing along parts of the nearly 2,000-mile frontier, and the deployment of radar and other technologies, have not effectively slowed large-scale contraband trafficking.

Rather, border security policy has made it more difficult for Latin American economic migrants to enter the United States and has aggrandized the power of transnational human trafficking organizations. “The focus of border security right now is on the suppression of illegal immigration, but this isn’t the principal security problem,” said speaker Terry Goddard, former Attorney General of Arizona.

At the border, three main concerns—unauthorized migration, the threat of terrorism, and contraband trafficking—demand distinct government enforcement responses, said speaker Josiah McC. Heyman of the University of Texas at El Paso. Yet the overemphasis on immigration enforcement has led to unanticipated consequences, such as the higher fees that smugglers are now able to command from prospective migrants—fees that help finance organized crime. At the same time, the drive to contain unauthorized migration has led to an overemphasis on security efforts at the remote desert locations where would-be migrants typically cross. This has come at the expense of expanded security measures at the ports of entry, which are generally located in more populated urban areas, ignoring the fact that most contraband trafficking happens at the ports of entry, Heyman said. “We need to look at the discrepancy between border staffing and the Border Patrol,” Heyman said. “Dangerous people are likely to move through ports of entry, through quick, efficient, low-detection ways.”

Additionally in some circles, current border security policy has led to the conflation of unauthorized migration with terrorism, which has been counterproductive to the goal of enhancing national security, since one result of this has been to discourage unauthorized persons from trusting law enforcement. “The central question we need to ask is whether stopping labor or family migrants is in the best interest of national security,” Heyman said.

In fact, border security needs to be redefined to include counter-trafficking and counter-terrorism operations beyond the physical border, since these operations are in many cases more effective than “outbound” enforcement at the physical line, said Eric L. Olson, Senior Associate, Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute. “The question we want to wrestle with today is whether security at the physical border is truly the best way to enhance national security,” he said. For example, bulk cash smugglers accumulate, shrink wrap, and conceal shipments of thousands of dollars in U.S. bills at locations far from the U.S. southwestern border, yet enforcement actions to stop such bulk-cash smuggling are typically concentrated at the physical boundary line. “Outbound” inspections are not the only way to prevent the cash or weapons smuggling that feeds the Mexico-based cartels, especially when “upstream” measures beyond the physical line may be more effective.

Attorney General Goddard stressed the need “to hit the cartels where it hurts,” robbing them of the financial lifeblood they use to bribe politicians, hire mercenaries, and engage in other dealings associated with contraband trafficking. “(Organized crime) isn’t doing this because they love the work. They’re (engaging in trafficking) because they are well-compensated. The No. 1 issue is to attack the money,” he said.

Goddard and Heyman are scholars in-residence at the Immigration Policy Center (IPC) and have written extensively on the subject. Goddard has just published a brief on the need for enhanced enforcement against illicit financial transfers called How to Fix a Broken Border: Hit the Cartels Where It Hurts, and Heyman is the author of Guns, Drugs, and Money: Tackling the Real Threats to Border Security, both of which are available on the IPC website. Olson is the editor of Shared Responsibility: U.S.-Mexico Policy Options for Confronting Organized Crime, published by the Mexico Institute.

Drafted by Robert Donnelly, Program Associate, Mexico Institute

Andrew Selee, Director, Mexico Institute. Ph: (202) 691-4088


Hosted By

Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more

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