Twenty years ago, Americans who lived far from our international borders likely didn’t give the U.S. Border Patrol a passing thought. I’m from a small town in Kansas, and I certainly didn’t know much about a sleepy little organization buried within the Department of Justice’s Immigration and Naturalization Service. When I joined the Border Patrol in 1995, I thought it would be an entry point to better-known Justice Department agencies like the FBI and U.S. Marshals Service. Little did I know that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security would propel the Border Patrol — for better or worse — to the forefront of American national security and political discourse.
In the simplest of terms, Border Patrol’s mission has always been to prevent bad things and bad people from entering our country between legal ports of entry. When I was a trainee, I knew my job would be to stop cartels and criminals from leveraging the vast border environment to further their illicit enterprises and ultimately do harm to Americans. I was one month away from graduating from the Border Patrol Academy when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred. As law enforcement, our classroom discussions naturally revolved around that incident, but the homegrown terrorist threat didn’t seem related to our Border Patrol mission.
There has always been the potential that the perpetrators or weapons in a terrorist plot could illegally cross our borders. But with more than a million cross-border encounters in some years, that threat was a needle in a haystack. In the mid-1990s, we certainly weren’t provided the budget to find it. We relied on retired and retrofitted Defense Department assets like helicopters, vehicles, and ground sensors. Our early border barriers were repurposed Vietnam-era helicopter landing mats — thin metal sheets which we turned vertically and drove into the ground to stop vehicles laden with drugs from crossing the border. Some of our equipment was homemade by agents with supplies from their garage or local hardware store. We did the best we could with what we had. And we knew we were not locating and intercepting everyone and everything that crossed our borders.
Over the last 20 years, border security and counterterrorism have become part of an all-threats approach to U.S. national security. This approach has enabled Border Patrol to grow significantly in size and sophistication. However, what is needed to accomplish the mission has remained constant. As Chief of the Border Patrol, I spent countless hours explaining to lawmakers the need for infrastructure, technology, and personnel to secure the border. One of these without the others will not work. Technology is a tempting one-size-fits-all solution because it is always advancing. But just as technology can never replace an agent making an arrest, it also cannot get in the path of a would-be border crosser until an agent arrives. The right combination of these three tools varies in different border environments, but each has a unique role to play: technology to identify the threat, physical infrastructure to slow or stop it, and agents to respond.
Together, these tools make the difference between knowing and not knowing who crosses our borders. Only after a successful arrest can an agent run a person’s biometric and biographic data to identify criminal history or ties to criminal or terrorist organizations. Most importantly in a post-9/11 world, Border Patrol works closely with intelligence and investigative partners in both DHS and DOJ to ensure what we learn is incorporated into the larger threat picture. If agents never make the arrest, there is little to no information to share.
In recent years, the focus on all-threats investments in border security has given way to a political firestorm surrounding immigration. At least five times since 2014, mass migration across our southern border has surged to the point of creating a humanitarian crisis. This has huge impacts on Border Patrol operations and border security as a whole. Transnational criminal organizations are not only profiting from the migrants they smuggle into the United States, they are also taking full advantage of border security gaps when agents are overwhelmed. Make no mistake — each day that these mass migrations continue, more individuals are successfully evading Border Patrol to enter the United States.
No matter where you stand politically on the issue of illegal immigration, we will always need to know who and what is crossing our borders. Even as American citizens we must present ourselves for inspection at a port of entry prior to entering the United States.
For the U.S. Border Patrol to truly be able to secure our nation’s borders, we must find a way to improve and promote pathways for legal immigration. Allowing border security operations to be overwhelmed year after year by mass migration crises creates a false dichotomy between our humanity and our security. These two values do not need to be in conflict. The ability to break this cycle lies in the hands of our lawmakers, not our law enforcement agents.
In the wake of 9/11, our country made significant investments to safeguard America’s borders and the men and women of Border Patrol have selflessly served the mission every day since. We cannot allow these efforts to be forgotten or dismantled by making the border yet another third rail in American politics.