What Does Smart and Effective Border Security Look Like?

March 1, 2013

Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) budget has roughly doubled from $6 billion in 2006 to $11.7 billion in 2012. This funding has overwhelmingly been focused on border security between the ports of entry and Border Patrol staffing – which has now reached over 21,370 agents in number. However, there are four major pieces of border operations that remain in need of attention: (1) adequate border agent training; (2) adequate resources and infrastructure at U.S. land ports of entry; (3) sufficient oversight mechanisms and procedures to hold agents accountable for misconduct; and (4) effective use of border technology.

Professional and Integrity Training

Border security policies set by Congress have driven the Border Patrol’s rapid size increase. The Border Patrol is currently mandated to maintain a minimum of 21,370 agents at any given time, up from 14,923 in fiscal year 2007.[1] As the size of the Border Patrol rapidly expanded, so has the number of complaints against Border Patrol agents. In 2009, complaints increased 50 percent from the previous years. However, resources allocated to offices charged with investigating complaints, such as the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (OIG), have not kept pace.[2] A December 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that CBP does not have reliable training completion records to ensure officers received required training. It also found that more than 4,000 officers had not completed required courses in immigration fundamentals, immigration law and agricultural fundamentals.[3] A 2011 report by Appleseed concluded that CBP agents are not adequately screening unaccompanied alien children from contiguous countries to ensure they are not a potential victim of trafficking, have no claim to asylum, and that they voluntarily agree to go home.[4]

Resources at the Ports of Entry

Trade and commerce at U.S. land ports of entry have been increasing exponentially, especially across the southwestern border. In 2010, the value of cross-border travel at the U.S. land ports and exports with Mexico and Canada totaled more than $791 billion[5] and more than 13,000 trucks bring over $630 million worth of goods into the U.S. from Mexico every day. Meanwhile, three out of four of all legal entries into the U.S. occur at an official border crossing, which also translates into billions spent on tourism.[6] The revenue gained from trade at the border generates jobs for Americans not just in border-states but all over the nation where land exports and imports reach. Customs and Border Patrol Field Operations, which oversees the flow of commerce at the ports, is under staffed. There are often long wait times to cross the border, which can detract from efficient commerce exchange and lead to billions of dollars in spoiled goods. A 2012 Texas Border Coalition report found that, because enforcement resources have been so focused between ports of entry, individuals illegally entering the U.S. between the land ports of entry have a 90 percent probability of being apprehended, but those entering illegally through a land port have a 28 percent chance of being apprehended[7]. The understaffing also leaves land ports more susceptible to transnational drug and weapons smuggling.

Proper Border Oversight and Misconduct Prevention

Since 2010, there have been at least a dozen individual media reports recording Customs and Border Protection excessive use of force. Examples of agent excessive use of force include an October 10, 2012, incident where a Border Patrol agent shot and killed Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez after Rodriguez threw a rock at him.[8] Another incident occurred on September 28, 2012, when a CBP agent gunned down 32 year-old Valeria Alvarado in Chula Vista, California, after a traffic incident.[9] Between October 2007 and April 2012, there were 232 criminal indictments of CBP staff for drug-related offenses, fraud, misuse of government resources and theft.[10] A December 2012 GAO report found that CBP does not have an integrity strategy, as called for in its Fiscal Year 2009-2014 Strategic Plan. It also found that there is significant cultural resistance among some CBP components in acknowledging the agency’s Internal Affairs authority for overseeing all integrity-related activities.[11]

Technology at the Border

CBP relies heavily on technology in order to secure the United States borders and ports of entry. It has had mixed success in doing so, however.

On the one hand, CBP works to harness the potential from already existing technologies. For example, more than 100 types of military equipment formerly deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been tested for potential use on U.S. borders, including hand-held translation devices, blimps (used to monitor the border)[12], mobile surveillance units and thermal imaging systems.[13]

CBP also commissions its own new border-specific equipment, and has come under criticism both for investing in technology that ultimately did not work as intended, and for lack of capacity and expertise to operate new technology effectively. For example, in January 2010, DHS announced that it was abandoning its “virtual fence” project known as the Secure Border Initiative, or SBInet, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars.[14] Despite three failed attempts to install a virtual fence, however, DHS was planning to spend another $750 million for the “Alternative (Southwest) Border Technology” program.[15] In examining this new program, the Government Accountability Office cautioned that DHS’s Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) did not clearly convey its reasons for employing this strategy and that the strategy was in urgent need of independent evaluation for determination of effectiveness and suitability.[16

CBP has experienced similar problems with its use of unmanned aircraft systems, or drones. Congress spent more than $240 million to establish the unmanned aircraft program for CBP.[17] However, according to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (OIG), CBP had no plan for effectively operating the unmanned drone flights and lacked both the on-the-ground equipment needed to orchestrate flights as well as the technological and personnel capacity to arrange for maintenance or repairs.[18] This resulted in underutilization of the technology and criticism that CBP’s drone project is a very expensive way of acquiring information that could be obtained through other ways, including the manned aircrafts already in CBP’s fleet.[19] The OIG recommended that CBP cease acquiring additional drones until it had developed a more comprehensive management plan for using them appropriately.[20]

A smart border security strategy should be one that (1) effectively communicates and engages both the public and lawmakers about precisely what it is trying to accomplish, (2) explains why that strategy is the best option and (3) is subject to independent review that gives lawmakers and the public the confidence the agency is making the right choices.

[1] Customs and Border Protection, Securing America’s Borders – CBP 2007 FY in Review, available at


[2] Budget for the OIG grew only 6% in 2009. Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, FY 2013, H.R. 5855, available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112hr5855pcs/pdf/BILLS-112hr5855pcs.pdf.

[3] Government Accountability Office, Border Security: Additional Steps Needed to Ensure That Officers Are Fully Trained, December 2011, available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/590/587314.pdf.

[4] Appleseed, “Children at the Border: The Screening, Protection and Repatriation of Unaccompanied Mexican Minors,” 2011 available at, http://appleseednetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Children-At-The-Border1.pdf.

[5] U.S. Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Trans-Border Freight Data, available at


[6] GAO-08-329T: Despite Progress, Weaknesses in Traveler Inspections Exist at Our Nation’s Border crossings, Statement of Richard M. Stana, Director Homeland Security and Justice Issues, Washington, DC, January 3, 2008, available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/120/118716.pdf.

[7] Texas Border Coalition, Without Strategy: America’s Border Security Blunders Facilitate and Empower Mexico’s Drug Cartels, January, 2012, available at


[8]Lourdes Medrano, “Bullets vs. rocks? Border Patrol under fire for use of deadly force,” Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 2012, available at http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2012/1203/Bullets-vs.-rocks-Border-Patrol-under-fire-for-use-of-deadly-force

[9] Garske, Shin, Gomez, “Family Outraged Over Woman’s Shooting,” KNSD San Diego, available at


[10] “Border Patrol corruption case set for trial,” The Washington Post, June 25, 2012, available at


[11] Government Accountability Office, Border Security: Additional Actions needed to Strengthen CBP Efforts to Mitigate Risk of Employee Corruption and Misconduct, December 2012, available at


[12] Andrew O’Reilly, “US Military Adds Blimps to Patrol Border,” Fox News Latino (Aug. 15, 2012) available at http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2012/08/15/us-military-adds-blimps-to-patrol-border/.

[13] CBP Press Release, “CBP Launches Evaluation of DOD Equipment in Rio Grande Valley,” (Aug. 23, 2012) available at http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/newsroom/news_releases/national/08092012_4.xml

[14] Dept. of Homeland Security, Report on the Assessment of the Secure Border Initiative-Network (SBInet) Program, (2010) available at http://www.globalexchange.org/sites/default/files/DHS_Report.pdf.

[15] Anahi Aradas, “US-Mexico Border: Efforts to Build a Virtual Wall,” BBC News (Aug. 29 2012) available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-19409682

[16] Richard Stana, Border Security: Preliminary Observations on the Status of Key Southwest Border Technology Programs. Government Accountability Office, March 2011, available at


[17] Amber Corrin, “Border Patrol Drone Program Plagued with Problems,” Federal Computer Week (Jun. 12, 2012) available at http://fcw.com/articles/2012/06/12/border-patrol-unmanned-drone-planning-failure.aspx.

[18] Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General, CBP’s Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the Nation’s Border Security, (May 2012), report available at http://www.oig.dhs.gov/assets/Mgmt/2012/OIG_12-85_May12.pdf

[19] Rob Margetta, “Eyes on the Border, at a High Cost,” Congressional Quarterly, 2094 (Oct. 22, 2012).

[20] Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General, CBP’s Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the Nation’s Border Security (May 2012), report available at http://www.oig.dhs.gov/assets/Mgmt/2012/OIG_12-85_May12.pdf