Agency Reports and Local Experience Show U.S. Borders Are Far from 'Secure'

VIDEO: For many policymakers "securing the border" is a prerequisite to comprehensive immigration reform -- but experts differ on what "secure" really means, and law enforcement officials and government agencies say that border security, north and south, is a much bigger challenge than most Americans realize. Video by Alex Lancial and Tara Molina.

By Caitlin Cruz
Cronkite Borderlands Initiative

MASSENA, N.Y. — The Akwesasne Mohawk Indian Territory occupies a unique position on the U.S.-Canada border.

That is evident as Akwesasne Mohawk Police Chief Jerry Swamp points to a small island behind his police station that, because of the March snow, almost blends into the St. Lawrence River. At a point next to the island, multiple jurisdictions collide. New York state and two Canadian provinces, Ontario and Quebec, come together there, and the Akwesasne territory sits on top of it all. Law enforcement officials from multiple national, state and local agencies patrol the area. The boundaries are a byproduct of the settlement of the War of 1812.

“Just so happened that the borders were imposed upon our community right in the middle,” said Swamp.

Like border communities to the south, the Akwesasne territory is dealing with drugs, smuggling, jurisdictional overlap and the question of what constitutes a secure border.

“Because we are a border community, we have a lot of the same issues that pretty much any other border community has between U.S. and Canada, probably as well as the southern border between U.S. and Mexico,” said Swamp, a 22-year police force veteran.

But as Congress struggles with questions of border security and immigration reform, it’s really a tale of one border, not two, that is being debated.

Security North and South

A flag atop a fire hydrant marks the U.S.-Canadian border within the Akwesasne Territory. There are no border fences or checkpoints within this part of the territory. Photo by Alex Lancial.
A flag atop a fire hydrant marks the U.S.-Canadian border within the Akwesasne Territory. There are no border fences or checkpoints within this part of the territory. Photo by Alex Lancial.

Despite the fact that the border between the mainland United States and Canada is twice as long as the border between the U.S. and Mexico, the focus in Congress is all on the southwest. The numbers tell why.

The U.S. Border Patrol reported that in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2012, agents apprehended 356,873 undocumented immigrants along the 1,969-mile border with Mexico. By contrast, along the 3,987-mile Canadian border, they arrested 4,210.

During the same time frame, Border Patrol agents at the southern border confiscated nearly 2.3 million pounds of marijuana and 12,160 pounds of cocaine. In the north, agents seized 1,542 of marijuana and 206 pounds of cocaine.

It’s disparities like those that could eventually dominate the debate about how the United States will deem either border "secure" and how it will deal with the unabated flow of drugs and illegal immigrants.

The comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate and languishing in the House of Representatives would more than double the number of Border Patrol agents from the current 18,576 at the southern border to nearly 38,000 and add 3,500 customs agents at ports of entry nationwide. By contrast, only 2,206 Border Patrol agents currently are stationed along the Canadian border.

The bill would add another 700 miles of fencing between the U.S. and Mexico, roughly doubling again the level of current fencing. The Canadian border has virtually no fencing and is often referred to as the largest unguarded border in the world.

The Senate measure would also vastly expand the use of drones to patrol the southern border, as well as other high-tech surveillance equipment. And it would require an exit monitoring system at air and sea ports of entry, in recognition of the fact that up to 40 percent of the 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. came here legally and overstayed their visas. However, there is no provision or plan for tracking down visa overstayers.

The projected cost of those and other security measures is $46.3 billion.

Defining, Measuring Border Security

Still, those who live along the border and know it best say if the goal is to block anyone from sneaking across the border, all the spending still won’t work.

“I don’t care who says what,” said Arturo R. Garino, the mayor of Nogales, Ariz., and a former police officer. “The border will never be fully secured, unless we were to build a wall like Berlin, and even then it wasn’t secured.”

At the northern border, New York Erie County Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman echoes the sentiment.

“We don’t get the numbers or see the numbers the south border does," said Wipperman. "But it only takes one individual with bad intentions to do a lot of damage."

Audrey Macklin, a professor of law at the University of Toronto who specializes in border and immigration issues, said both the northern and southern borders are too vast for traditional methods of enforcement such as fences or extra boots on the ground.

“I think governments are committed to perpetuating the idea that sovereignty … is how effectively one can regulate the movement of each and every individual across the border at each and every location along the border,” said Macklin, who has law degrees from Yale and the University of Toronto. “That’s a naive view of sovereignty and border control. But no government feels that it can afford to tell the population of their countries that [idea] is naive, futile and unattainable.”

Macklin instead suggests border management.

“Border management can be real, but border management requires an admission that borders are by their very nature porous,” she said. “They can never be hermetically sealed. Countries wouldn’t even want to do what is necessary to hermetically seal them because their economies would collapse.”

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Daniel Tirado patrols the U.S.-Mexico border near Corpus Christi Texas. His vehicle is outfitted with medical gear for treatment of injured border crossers. Photo by Alex Lancial.
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Daniel Tirado patrols the U.S.-Mexico border near Corpus Christi Texas. His vehicle is outfitted with medical gear for treatment of injured border crossers. Photo by Alex Lancial.

Border enforcement spending over the past decade in the U.S. hasn’t come close to shutting down illegal immigration and drug smuggling. But stepped-up enforcement, coupled with a lagging job market in the U.S. and an improving economy in Mexico, has slowed immigration to the point that demographers say there is “net zero” immigration. In other words, just as many people from Mexico are leaving the U.S. as coming in and illegal immigration is at its lowest point in decades.

But to get to that point, the growth in border security spending has been exponential. At the end of fiscal year 2004, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection, had about 28,100 personnel assigned to patrol land and sea borders and ports of entry nationwide at a cost of about $5.9 billion.

By the end of fiscal year 2011, those numbers increased to 41,400 personnel at a cost of $11.8 billion.

And according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, the U.S. spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement in fiscal 2012, $4 billion more than all of the other federal law enforcement agencies combined, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Yet, with all the spending, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported in 2010 that less than half — 44 percent — of the southwestern border was under “operational control.” That is approximately 866 miles of unsecure border.

At the Canadian border, the situation is much worse. In February 2011, the GAO found only 69 miles of the northern border — or 1.25 percent of the entire U.S.-Canada border — to be under operational control.

Those figures are important because they indicate how much enforcement has to be stepped up to meet requirements in the Senate immigration reform bill now pending in Congress. The bill changes terminology from seeking “operational control” to requiring “effective control in high risk border sectors along the Southern Border.”

An analysis by the Immigration Policy Center, the research arm of the American Immigration Council, which promotes America’s history as a nation of immigrants, indicates the new standards are much tougher than the levels of security that currently have been reached. The analysis says the Senate’s bill defines “effective control” as “persistent surveillance of 100 percent of the border and a 90 percent effectiveness rate in preventing illegal crossings.”

Enforcement is particularly difficult in high-risk sectors like Arizona. According to the Customs and Border Protection fact sheet, “approximately half of all drugs seized and illegal immigrants apprehended entering the United States are seized or apprehended in Arizona.”

Quantifying what can be considered a secure border is difficult even for law enforcement veterans like Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sgt. Rafael Corrales, who has lived all of his life in the Arizona county that shares 50 miles of border with Mexico.

Santa Cruz County, Ariz., Sheriff Tony Estrada says a completely sealed border is impossible. Photo by Lillian Reid.
Santa Cruz County, Ariz., Sheriff Tony Estrada says a completely sealed border is impossible. Photo by Lillian Reid.

“If by secure you mean safe and there’s no drugs or any crime being committed around it, then it’s not secure,” said Corrales, who has spent 18 years with the sheriff’s office. “To me, that would mean no crime, in general, no crime, that we’re all safe. That’s just my opinion, though.”

Corrales’ boss, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, said that even with stepped-up enforcement, both legal and illegal movement will always be a part of the southwestern border.

“This is going to continue to be an active border,” said Estrada, who has served as sheriff since 1993. “As long as we have poverty in the world and as long as they’re looking at the United States as a place they can make an honest living and have a future for themselves people are (going to) keep coming.”

Economic Cooperation Part of the Solution

Estrada believes it will take more than a tougher enforcement strategy to address the border issues.

“I’ve always said the United States took their eye off Mexico for too long,” said Estrada. “They took Mexico for granted for too long. We’re joined at the hip just like Canada, and they ignored Mexico.”

Through their Beyond the Border pact announced on Feb. 4, 2011, the U.S. and Canada sought to secure the border through trade agreements.

A commitment like Beyond the Border between U.S. and Mexico could be a turning point for the southwestern border, according to Estrada.

“If the U.S. can recognize the potential that Mexico has and explore that or expand it or take advantage of it, I think that would go a long way,” Estrada said.

Beyond the Border was born more than 17 years after the North American Free Trade Agreement. U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the agreement on Feb. 4, 2011, and said it was designed to bring their countries together as “staunch allies, vital economic partners and steadfast friends.”

The agreement features four areas of cooperation: addressing threats early; trade facilitation, economic growth, and jobs; integrated cross-border law enforcement; and critical infrastructure and cyber security.

The action plan states: “We recognize that our efforts should accelerate job creation and economic growth through trade facilitation at our borders and contribute directly to the economic security and well-being of both the United States and Canada.”

But more than two years after the announcement, the plan has been criticized by citizens of both countries for its slow implementation and because, unlike the North American Free Trade Agreement implemented in 1994, it did not include Mexico.

Increased Border Security in the North

While enforcement efforts on the southern border have grown exponentially, the Department of Homeland Security released its Northern Border Strategy in June of 2012. It shows that the Border Patrol has increased its northern presence from 340 agents in 2001 to more 2,200 agents in 2012. The number of customs officers at ports of entry increased from 2,721 officers in 2003 to approximately 3,700 officers in 2012.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has also increased its northern border presence.

“If you can smuggle dope back and forth across the border then you can smuggle people back and forth across the border,” said Jim Burns, DEA assistant special agent in charge in upstate New York. “So that’s one reason why DEA has ramped up its presence along the northern border and I know that’s why Homeland Security has ramped up their presence.”

A key reason for the uptick in security on the northern border has been the potential for terrorists coming into the United States from the north. That view was reinforced in April 2013 when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested two men who were suspected of receiving support from al Qaeda to conspire and carry out an attack on a VIA railway train. The targeted train travels from the Toronto area to New York.

Some local government officials say they aren’t sure that they want more law enforcement presence along the northern border.

“We have such a large number of people coming across and it’s such an important part of our tourism industry that this maybe is not the best place to try to find the one out of a million people that represents a threat and keep the other 999,999 waiting,” said Niagara Falls, N.Y., Mayor Paul A. Dyster.

Chief Mike Mitchell discusses how his government deals with illegal immigration, drug smuggling and other crimes along the U.S.-Canada border, which passes through the middle of the Akwesasne Territory. Photo by Alex Lancial.
Chief Mike Mitchell discusses how his government deals with illegal immigration, drug smuggling and other crimes along the U.S.-Canada border, which passes through the middle of the Akwesasne Territory. Photo by Alex Lancial.

A little further to the east, the Akwesasne Territory straddles the U.S.-Canada border. It is 33 square miles and home to 12,000 people descended from various Indian tribes that pre-date European arrival in the Americas. The people of Akwesasne consider their homeland a sovereign nation.

Akwesasne Mohawk Grand Chief Mike Mitchell describes his people’s territory with pride, while acknowledging that money generated by drugs, alcohol, guns and smuggling have affected the Akwesasne community.

“Smuggling goes all across, as you probably have found out, right across North America in one form or another,” Mitchell said. “Akwesasne, with its complications of multiple jurisdictions, (it is) more prominent here.”

But he said he is working to change the lawless, Wild West image of Akwesasne.

“All the things I do every day try to wipe that image out,” he said, adding that his people and territory will remain a "target," in spite of strong efforts to protect the community through education and cultural pride.

The island in the river isn’t the only place where jurisdictions collide in the Akwesasne territory. Buildings within the territory straddle the border. The front door to the local radio station -- CKON-FM -- is in Canada, while the backyard is in the United States. This is a fact of life in the territory.

But Mitchell said the Akwesasne people are one community:

“We don’t let the border affect us.”

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