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3 Questions: Chappell Lawson on border security

MIT political scientist, back from serving in Washington, discusses the border issues the United States faces.
A small fence separates densely populated Tijuana, Mexico, right, from the United States in the Border Patrol's San Diego Sector.
A small fence separates densely populated Tijuana, Mexico, right, from the United States in the Border Patrol's San Diego Sector.
Photo: U.S. Army

With national security and immigration prominent as political issues, border control is a perennial topic of debate in the United States — especially as the presidential campaign heats up. What are the chief border-security issues now facing the country? MIT’s Center for International Studies hosts a public discussion on the subject today, as part of its ongoing Starr Forum, featuring two speakers: Alan Bersin, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and MIT political scientist Chappell Lawson, an expert on Latin America and Mexico who just returned from nearly two years as executive director and senior advisor to the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. MIT News asked Lawson to discuss border issues ahead of the event.

Q. You have just served in a senior position at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. What have been your biggest concerns regarding border issues?

A. The challenges are different between the ports of entry than they are at the authorized ports of entry. Between the ports, everything coming in is illegal, so the goal is to be able to identify and intercept these things. In the United States, this is the job of the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard. 

At the ports of entry — land, air or sea — it’s a different story entirely: Ninety-five to 99 percent of what comes into the country is compliant and unproblematic. So the challenge here is to find the “needle in the haystack”: the one bad thing — drugs hidden in the wheel wells of cars, people with fraudulent documents, criminals — in the much larger [volume] of legal commerce and travel without impeding all of these legal activities. 

There are two strategies for separating needles from hay: One is to get better at finding needles, the other is to get better at blowing hay off the stack. The first strategy is called targeting; here, the proper goal of the U.S. government should be to muster all available information on the person, vehicle or shipment — from federal agencies, international partners, state or local law enforcement, and the like — to determine whether it deserves closer scrutiny.

The second strategy involves vetted-traveler or vetted-shipper programs, in which people or companies voluntarily surrender extra information about themselves (or in the case of shippers, their own supply chains) in exchange for expedited processing. We have four such programs for individuals: FAST for truck drivers, SENTRI on the Southwest border, NEXUS on the Canadian border and Global Entry for air passengers. These programs effectively blow a significant portion of the hay off the stack.

Q. Government data and news reports have emphasized the reduction in crime along the border, and the lack of a spillover of violence into the United States. What are the biggest enforcement or social changes we have seen over, say, the last decade?

A. As you point out, spillover violence ranges from very limited to nonexistent along the border. As an example, El Paso is one of the safest cities in America. By contrast, Ciudad Juarez on the Mexican side has the highest homicide rate in the Western Hemisphere. Yet in an aerial photograph, you would see a single metropolitan area in the middle of the desert, bisected by a thin, blue ribbon of river that at some points is almost invisible amid the maze of roads.

The difference between the two pieces of this city — between El Paso and Juarez — is primarily a product of differences in law enforcement capacity in the United States and Mexico. So the logical response is to strengthen law enforcement south of the border. This is fundamentally a job for Mexico itself, but the United States can and should help. Over the long run, the United States is much better served by a stable, democratic, economically prosperous Mexico than by one in which criminal elements can challenge state authority.

What has changed in the last decade? On the Mexican side, there has been an attempt to tackle the cartels, which existed for a long time but were not systematically attacked. This effort has advanced the Mexican government’s stated goal of fragmenting the cartels into smaller entities that lack the capacity to threaten the state. But fragmentation and “decapitation” of the cartels have triggered a huge amount of violence — mainly within and between the cartels — which has tested public confidence in the strategy.

On the U.S. side, there has been a tremendous investment of resources in border security over the last decade, dramatically expanding the size of the border patrol and deploying all sorts of new detection technologies. I believe that these investments have had a significant effect on illegal migration, especially from countries other than Mexico. The effect on contraband is less clear but I expect still discernible. We can have a different discussion about whether an extra marginal dollar spent on border enforcement now is the best investment of taxpayer funds, but there is no doubt that investments over the last decade have helped.

Q. What are the unresolved issues in border security that still need to be addressed?

A. Where we have fallen down is on interior enforcement. The best way to control illegal immigration and drug use in this country is to reduce demand, not by attempting to restrict supply. In the case of illegal immigration, employer sanctions would be the most effective strategy. In the case of drugs, the best strategy would be to focus on the population already under the gentle tutelage of our criminal justice system — those on parole, probation or in prison — who consume a significant portion of illegal drugs. I suspect we’ve probably gone about as far on the border enforcement side as we should go; it’s now time to focus on other pieces of the puzzle.

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