border patrol watches for illegal crossing tijuana A Border Patrol vehicle sits along the border fence separating San Diego and Tijuana in March 2016. (Donna Burton/Customs and Border Protection)

Border Security: Back to Basics with Personnel, Technology, Infrastructure

Personnel, Technology and Infrastructure: these are the three mainstays of border security at and between our nation’s ports of entry. Of the three, personnel is without doubt the most critical. It may seem counterintuitive for the chief of Border Patrol to try to respectfully argue against funding for additional personnel, but that’s exactly what I found myself doing in my former position as national chief of the Border Patrol from 2008-2009. It was not that we did not need more agents but, rather, we needed the right type and mix of technology first, sequenced in conjunction with planned infrastructure and additional agents.

From where I sat, I felt that the Border Patrol needed a more modular approach to border resourcing. Our organization had been the beneficiary of robust budgets supporting us and our mission as our country became more serious about controlling our borders. At the time, our organization had doubled in size over the previous two and a half years and was maturing into the largest uniformed law enforcement agency in the U.S. government. We had built over 650 miles of border infrastructure and our men and women in “green” urgently needed technology support more than additional colleagues. I felt it important that our lawmakers understood how best to support the “boots on the border.” The irony is not lost on me that today, 10 years later, we are having a similar conversation about where best to appropriate funding to keep enhancing our nation’s border security.

The Border Patrol has seen three major eras of attention. The Immigration Reform Control Act (IRCA) days of the Reagan administration and the critical post-9/11 homeland security enhancements, in which Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was created, certainly highlighted the Border Patrol’s role in our federal national security mission space. Today’s renewed focus on border security is at an unprecedented level.

Border attention, as in past eras, is both a blessing and a challenge. The integral role that the Border Patrol plays in national security is recognized by many constituencies and Congress. With this awareness comes varying levels of funding interests, focus and support. On the ground, in the air, our Border Patrol agents need this support and funding for their requirements and needs.

In the year ahead, we need to get back to the basics, investing in and developing the three main areas of border security: personnel, technology, and infrastructure. One of these terms is certainly more politically charged than the others, but all are necessary for a comprehensive border security strategy. Congress and this administration need to invest in all three to best position the Border Patrol for continued success.

Personnel: Recruiting the Next Generation of Agents

Personnel – the men and women patrolling our northern and southern borders – are the keystone to the Border Patrol’s national security mission. Over the last 24 years, the Border Patrol has expanded exponentially, from fewer than 5,000 agents in 1992 to more than 21,000 as of September 2017. While a goal of 5,000 more agents is estimable, Border Patrol struggles to recruit and sustain its current staffing levels. The Border Patrol has reviewed its approach to recruitment and retention and has made tremendous strides in its recruitment branding, recruitment operations, and training. Congress must fund and support the Border Patrol’s efforts so that it can attract, recruit, train and hire the quality agents it needs to increase its forces. Border Patrol leadership must be equipped with the ability to sustain the agency’s maturing workforce.

Countless studies, surveys, and polls have indicated that millennials – the next generation to be drawn from for recruitment – prioritize and value different things than the generations before.  From the outreach process to training, salaries, optics, and benefits, the Border Patrol has assessed the efficacy of its processes and offerings to this new generation. As we learned from our last growth period of 2006-08, funding must support the Border Patrol’s needs. Budgets, time and, importantly, Congress’ patience will be of the essence.

Technology: Layering Technologies for Operational Efficiency

The principle question for Border Patrol in its approach to technology is, how do we layer it for operational efficiency? As computer chips get smaller and our machines get smarter, so too do the technologies of those who would wish to do us harm. Streamlining current technologies, aggregating feeds from current on-the-ground technologies, and incorporating new and evolving technology feeds will be critical in this race.

Top Border Patrol operators are interested in building on legacy systems and incorporating new technology with a focus on incremental “systems” capabilities. Yes, additional technology for expanded situational awareness is vital, but integrating technology feeds is just as critical. As one of the top tech savvy Border Patrol operators puts it, “I am looking for a ‘bus’ vehicle, a means to have new technology ‘get on the bus’ with what I currently have deployed on the ground.”

Taking a page from Silicon Valley’s book, border security must also have an eye on new technologies. Before I left CBP and the Border Patrol, we identified agility, flexibility, and mobility as the fundamental capabilities to our operations. This still holds true today. Specifically, new technologies should facilitate a systems approach to surveillance and intelligence. These technologies should include unmanned aerial systems, tethered drones, unattended ground sensors with Electronic-Optical-Infrared-Detection and surveillance systems capable of machine learning, and remote surveillance advancements. Innovation in aggregated technologies will ensure our agents stay ahead of the many and diverse threats they face.

Infrastructure: Judiciously Placed to Meet the Operational Threat

Our Border Patrol agents need infrastructure that is thoughtfully designed, well placed, and supported. Wherever a physical barrier is the best-suited deterrent, a modularly constructed barrier should be built. Simply put, any infrastructure built (wall or otherwise) must be supported by technology and personnel to defend it.

As with personnel and technology, investments in infrastructure must fit operator requirements within the environments they operate. From the Arizona desert area known as “El Camino del Diablo” (The Devil’s Highway) to the highly dense and vegetated environment of the Rio Grande Valley to the urban congestion of the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo border, our infrastructure must fit the terrain. There is still a need for infrastructure to be built, but not to the extremes being debated today. The Border Patrol knows what it needs, where it needs it, and how much it needs.

I feel compelled to end with the following: we must not forget that our agents and officers responsible for border security protect our nation from much more than illegal immigration.  Border Patrol plays a vital role in stopping the flow of narcotics, arms trafficking, and other weapons into our nation. Our policymakers and politicians want to invest in this mission, but to do so effectively we must bring the operator to the table and, quite simply, listen to them – they are the experts.

David Aguilar previously served as Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). As Acting Commissioner, he oversaw our nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency, a workforce of over 60,000 agents, officers, and other personnel and a budget of more than 12 Billion dollars. Prior to leading CBP, Mr. Aguilar was appointed by President George W. Bush as the National Chief of the United States Border Patrol. Mr. Aguilar served as Chief of the Tucson Sector and in various leadership positions within the U.S. Border Patrol during his 35-year Federal law enforcement career.

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