National Immigration Forum

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On Border Security, We’re Chasing the Minnows

December 15, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

This post was written by Forum intern Charlie Gillig

The U.S.-Mexico border winds its way through 1,969 miles of geographically and culturally diverse landscape. Just as varied and bending is the Obama Administration’s U.S.-Mexico border security strategy, unveiled back on March 29, 2009. Since then, the administration has spent billions of dollars to fight border violence, prevent the illegal trafficking of drugs, arms and currency, strengthen Mexican border law enforcement institutions and control illegal immigration. The result of this strategy has been a multitude of new projects and programs run through various government agencies.

It would be difficult and unfair to generalize today about the success or failure of all these initiatives taken together. However, there are disturbing trends in the administration’s border security policy that need to be addressed immediately in order to ensure a safe, secure and efficient U.S-Mexico border.

One such trend is a focus in administrative policy on small-scale illegal activity instead of tackling the leadership and major actors in criminal organizations.  A recent review from the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General (OIG) on Project Gunrunner, a project designed to curtail illegal arms trafficking across the border, found that the chief agency responsible for this initiative, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), was too often investigating single-defendant cases instead of targeting larger organizations by prosecuting “higher level traffickers and smugglers.”  Further, some ATF personnel were discouraged from working on complex conspiracy investigations that would target smuggling leadership.  In other words, the ATF targets the easily-replaced organizational minnows, while arms-trafficking’s major perpetrators continue unchecked. 

The problems the OIG found with Project Gunrunner are emblematic of the way border enforcement is being conducted by the government overall.  The government’s border security mission is being sidetracked by a focus on minor actors.  The mission would be better served when the larger syndicates, the drug cartels, arms traffickers and human smuggling organizations are targeted and dismantled.

Another example of misplaced priorities and funding is Operation Streamline, which brings low-level criminal charges against virtually all immigrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. It is well-documented that this program diverts scarce resources away from the prosecution of more serious crimes on the border and towards the prosecution of individuals who have little prosecutorial value and to whom prosecution is not proven to be a deterrent to migrating for work.  Migrant workers are not the individuals who make the border unsafe.  Rather they are more commonly victims of violence from smugglers and cartels. The administration’s funding and policy priorities should not focus on prosecuting them to the detriment of true security efforts.

The misdirected energy spent on Operation Streamline has gone so far as to undermine the administration’s priorities in Project Gunrunner.  In 2009, the ATF prepared a case against a key gun dealer who appeared to have sold hundreds of automatic weapons to straw purchasers for the cartels. However, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix, already swamped with cases devoted to Operation Streamline, declined to take the case because it would have required too much time and resources to develop further. The Arizona Attorney General eventually took the case but a judge dismissed it before ever going to a jury.

Resources to maintain and improve the safety and security of the U.S.-Mexico border are not unlimited. With so many avenues for action to choose from, we urge the Obama administration to target the organized criminals who cause havoc and suffering at the border, not the individual migrants caught in the storm. The administration should do this by spending a greater percentage of funds on tracking, arresting and then prosecuting the leaders of crime and smuggling syndicates. This is the straightest, safest and most humane path towards truly improving security in the border region.

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