Amid concerns that the US-Mexico border has become a gateway for terrorists, illicit drug activity, human trafficking, and illegal immigration, securing the border has been at the center of numerous heated debates between candidates vying for the presidency in this year’s upcoming election.
Against this backdrop, the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee held a hearing on Tuesday to assess US efforts to effectively control and secure the southwest border, and to examine security gaps in the nation’s border security efforts.
“We must move beyond the political rhetoric that on one hand says that the border is out of control, while the other says it is more secure than ever and everything is fine,” said Subcommittee Chairman Martha McSally. “But the only way to do that is by being transparent when it comes to security on the border.”
McSally continued, “The truth is we have been given an incomplete picture as it relates to the situation on the border, and we cannot verifiably say where, between those two ends of the spectrum, we actually are – and that’s the heart of the problem.”
Although US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) claims an 81 percent interdiction effectiveness rate, the southwest border remains a hub of cross-border illegal activity, with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) apprehending over 331,000 illegal entrants, and making over 14,000 seizures of drugs in fiscal year 2015, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.
CBP has deployed significant resources to border security, including increasing the number of border patrol agents from 9,500 to 17,500 between fiscal years 2004 and 2015. In addition, the agency has deployed a variety of technology, such as surveillance systems, tactical infrastructure, and air and marine vessels.
However, McSally said these activities paint an incomplete pictures of the situation on the border, and are just “activity masquerading as effectiveness.”
“The Border Patrol cannot determine how many people we are not catching, or detecting,” McSally noted. “Assessing if the billions of tax payer dollars spent every year are actually effective at securing the border is a more productive and transparent way to look at border security.”
GAO has reported that although CBP has devoted resources to securing the border, it lacks measures to determine overall effectiveness. The problem with CBP’s effectiveness rate is that apprehension numbers do not provide a whole picture. The 81 percent interdiction rate touted by CBP included unaccompanied children and those who voluntarily turn themselves in, inflating the number, McSally said.
“It is important not only to look at what the percentage is, whether it is 81 percent or something else, but also the make-up of that interdiction effectiveness rate. Border Patrol is counting in the numerator apprehensions plus turn-backs,” Rebecca Gambler, Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at GAO, explained.
“As we have reported in the past, differences and changes in ‘turn-backs’ and ‘got-aways’ over time have an affect the ultimate interdiction rate, which is why GAO has reported on both apprehension rate and effectiveness rate.”
Ronald D. Vitiello, Acting Chief of CBP, told the hearing he would not sit there and say the agency knows what that common denominator is, but they are trying to improve the way they measure effectiveness at the border and currently use a systematic protocol to measure effectiveness.
According to Vitiello, about 56 percent of the border is deployed in such a way that agents and/or technology can see activity in real-time. Currently, over 1000 miles have no barrier. Consequently, GAO has asked CBP to assess the effectiveness of barriers.
Improving situational awareness at the border will be pivotal in the year ahead. As Homeland Security Today recently reported, the current fiscal year has seen a surge of unaccompanied immigrant minors crossing the US-Mexico border into the United States. If the trend continues, the nation is likely to see an even greater number of minors crossing the border than in fiscal year 2014, which saw a record number of children illegally crossing the border.
Furthermore, an escalation in the dangerous flow of illicit narcotics into the United States across the Southwest border has fueled violence and instability in both our nation and Mexico, the primary supplier of heroin to the US. Heroin seizures at the southwest border more than doubled over the last five years, fueling an epidemic of heroin abuse across the US.
“Families grappling with tragedy tell heartbreaking stories of how their loved ones fell into addiction and how cheap and easy it was for them to get these illicit drugs. The price and availability of these drugs across the country demonstrate that they still move across the border with relative ease,” McSally said.
Just as concerning, security experts are growingly increasingly worried that the southern border has become an avenue for ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other radical Islamist jihadi groups to enter the country. As Homeland Security Today recently reported, evidence suggests that jihadists have crossed the southwest border.
“We must move beyond the political rhetoric that on one hand says that the border is out of control, while the other says it is more secure than ever and everything is fine. But the only way to do that is by being transparent when it comes to security on the border,” McSally stated.