Rethinking the Line

Transforming Border Management Along the U.S.-Mexico Border

August 24, 2001


600 luminaries, including Texas Governor Rick Perry and Governor Tomas Yarrington of Tamaulipas, Mexico gathered in Edinburg, Texas on August 22 to chat up the border. The agenda of the U.S.-Mexico Border Summit embraced what many on both sides of the Rio Grande have been asserting for some time-the region's destiny lies with forging closer community and commercial ties. But a central barrier to achieving this vision is the current border control practices of the U.S. and Mexican governments.

Stephen E. Flynn
Stephen E. Flynn

Founding director of Northeastern University's Global Resilience Institute and former CFR fellow

We live in paradoxical times. On the one hand, economic prosperity depends on being open to the free movement of people, goods and ideas. On the other, there are a growing array of transnational threats that mandate greater vigilance and more robust controls. Just ask the Europeans, who have seen their livestock and tourist industries devastated this past winter and spring by foot-and-mouth disease. Talk to the frustrated criminal investigators who are trying their best to pursue increasingly sophisticated and elusive international traffickers in drugs, weapons, and humans. Or review the recent trial transcripts for Ahmed Ressan-the millennium terrorist apprehended while entering Port Angeles, Washington, on a ferry originating in Vancouver, B.C.

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Immigration and Migration

So while those who gathered in Edinburg are eager to advance the tide of openness, there are anxious politicians and policy makers in Washington who are looking to the border to hold back the tide of contraband, criminals, terrorists and illegal migrants. The clash of these two border perspectives-as a line that connects versus one that separates-undoubtedly will be messy, but it also could and should be avoided. Developing the means to manage the transnational muck that is contaminating the integrative process along the U.S.-Mexico border is essential, but we need to liberate ourselves from the notion that the border is the best place for accomplishing this. Indeed, an over reliance on the border to regulate and police the flow of goods and people can contribute to the problem.

Take the high profile case of Mexican trucking. The Teamsters Union has been busy warning legislators on Capitol Hill of pending highway carnage if Mexican trucks are allowed to travel beyond a roughly 20-mile border commercial zone. "Exhibit A" of the Teamsters case is a 36 percent safety inspection failure rate of Mexican trucks as reported in a May 2001 Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Inspector General's Report (the failure rate for U.S. trucks is 24 percent). Presumably, Congress would be issuing a death sentence to innocent American motorists if it does not continue the U.S. ban on long-haul Mexican trucking, even in the face of a NAFTA arbitration panel's ruling that the ban violates the terms of the trade agreement.

But these statistics on inspection failures don't tell the real story. The reason that so many Mexican trucks operating at the border are old and poorly maintained is because it is uneconomical to run a state-of-the-art rig. Waiting hours at a border crossing in order to make a 20-mile round trip, with an empty trailer on the return, is not a lucrative business. Moving intercontinental freight is, so the trucks and drivers who make long-haul journeys tend to be of a higher quality. The situation is analogous to keeping an old jalopy for short runs to the corner store and using the well-maintained, newer car for the trip to visit out-of-state relatives. If the border were more open, there would be less need for these short, inefficient runs and much of the Mexican trucking inventory would be making one-way trips to the junkyard.

Next, there is the case of contraband smuggling. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that more than half of the cocaine that arrives in the United States comes via the southwest border. This should comes as no surprise since there are so many places to hide given the growing volume of vehicles, trucks and railcars that enter the United States each day. In Laredo, for instance, truck crossings have risen 116 percent, from 1.3 million in 1993 to 2.8 million in 1999. Passenger vehicles have increased from 14.1 million to 17.1 million over the same time period. Faced with these volumes, the U.S. Customs Service is charged with monitoring compliance with more than 400 laws and 34 international treaties, statutes, agreements, and conventions on behalf of 40 federal agencies-but it must do this while being mindful of the need to facilitate the flow of legitimate trade and travelers. Despite the rising number of inspectors and investigators assigned to the 28 border-entry points in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, the service is facing "needle-in-a-haystack" odds as it strives to detect and intercept illicit drugs. That analogy is no exaggeration given that the pure cocaine to feed America's annual coke habit could be transported in just fifteen 40-foot containers and that it takes on average five agents 3 hours to thoroughly inspect a single 40' container.

When the vulnerability of the trucking sector that services the border zone is combined with the mounting pressures on customs and immigration inspectors to minimize any disruption to legitimate commerce, the results are nearly ideal conditions for smuggling. Not only are short-haul rigs more likely to be unsafe, but they are also easy marks for traffickers keen to get a load of narcotics across the border. This is because the drivers of these rigs tend to be younger, less skilled, and are paid only nominal wages-as little as $7 to $10 per trip-as compared with drivers of long-haul rigs. As a result, the potential payoff for carrying drugs through a congested border crossing is all the more tempting. Also, there is ample time and opportunity within a Mexican and US border city for these illicit transfers to occur between the forwarder facility where the short-haul rig picks up a load, and the border where it is likely to receive only a cursory examination by a hopelessly overworked Customs inspector.

More on:

Immigration and Migration

Then there is the issue of illegal migration. Stepped-up patrolling and policing of the border may raise the costs of getting to the United States, but it also creates a demand for those who are in the business of arranging the illegal crossings. As the "coyote" business becomes more lucrative, criminal gangs are better positioned to invest in pay-offs and put together increasingly sophisticated smuggling operations. Again, as with narcotics, there of ample opportunities for hiding illegal migrants among the growing tide of truck and vehicle traffic moving through congested ports of entry.

In short, the prevalence along the border of organized criminal activity, unsafe trucks, and drivers who are not likely to quibble over distinctions between legal and illegal cargo, has a good deal to do with the chaotic nature of living life in the border slow-lane. The combined forces of burgeoning cross border traffic, severe infrastructure constraints, and, ironically, added delays that result from stepped-up efforts to detect and intercept illicit activities at the border is making the border more difficult to police. While this conclusion is sobering, it should not lead to defeatism. Embracing openness and bolstering controls need not be an "either-or" proposition if we are willing to rethink how we manage the border.

A stepping off point is for politicians in Washington to reign in their rhetoric on the need to "protect" the southwest border-nobody in Mexico is trying to take it from them! Our NAFTA end game is not about defending a line in the sand, but advancing greater regional and trilateral market integration while managing important safety, security, and other public policy interests. This balancing act can be accomplished by: (1) developing the means to validate in advance the overwhelming majority of the people and goods that cross the border as law abiding and low risk; and (2) enhancing the means of federal agents to target and intercept inbound high risk people and goods. Accomplishing the first is key to succeeding at the second since there will always be limits on the time and resources available for agents to conduct investigations and inspections. The goal must be to limit the size of the haystack in which there are most likely to be illicit needles.

Verifying legitimate cross border flows as truly legitimate is not as fearsome task as it might first appear. This is because aggregate border crossing numbers are somewhat misleading since so many of the vehicles, drivers, and people are regular customers. For instance, while there were 4.2 million recorded truck southwest border crossings in 1999, these crossings were made by roughly 80,000 trucks. If we are willing to make the investment, the technologies are certainly available to identify frequent travelers as such. After undergoing a pre-screening application and inspection process, vehicles can be equipped with an electronic transponder and the driver can be provided with an ATM-style identity cards with encoded handprint or retina information to confirm that they are in fact who they profess to be.

Next, manufacturers, carriers, shippers, importers or exporters could be encouraged to adopt stringent internal security practices that reduce their exposure to internal criminal conspiracies and which deter criminal elements from targeting their vehicles and goods once they leave a factory, warehouse, or transshipment facility. They should also be encouraged to invest in information and tracking technologies to maintain near real-time accountability of their drivers, vehicles, and cargo from the point of origin through the final destination. Finally, they should transmit in advance, the electronic information border agents need to assess their compliance with the applicable laws and regulations.

While the private sector may be tempted to balk at these requirements, they are not, in fact, radical impositions. For most modern firms, it is in their own interest to invest in the kinds of systems that provide greater levels of oversight and control throughout the international transportation process. This is because their profitability is tied in no small part to their ability to satisfy growing competitive pressures to embrace supply-chain management imperatives built around efforts to trim inventories and to meet "just-in-time" delivery schedules. Prospering in the global marketplace increasingly requires constructing virtual worldwide assembly lines with minimally stocked shelves which, in term, makes compulsory a degree of logistical choreography impossible just a few years ago. Given the high costs associated with cargo losses or delays, managers want guarantees that goods will arrive by the date specified in the contract. Many transportation and logistics firms are responding by embracing new tagging, tracking, communications, and information technologies that make it possible to monitor in near real time the flow of products and passengers as they move from their points of origin to their final destinations. Shipper Web sites, such as those developed by the Ohio-based Roadway Express, provide customers with their own personal home page where they can monitor all their active shipments aboard the company's global positioning system-equipped trucking fleet, including their current locations and a constantly updated estimate of the expected delivery times.

Security concerns are also receiving new priority in the global marketplace, since the importance of guaranteeing delivery has placed a premium on tightening safeguards within the transportation industry. According to the National Cargo Security Council, American companies lose an estimated $12 to $15 billion a year in stolen cargo. The computer industry has been particularly hard hit, with theft and insurance costs adding an estimated ten percent to the cost of the average personal computer. Sixty high-tech companies with combined annual revenues of $750 billion have responded by forming the Technology Asset Protection Association (TAPA). Founded in 1997, TAPA has identified a comprehensive set of security practices to govern the shipment of members' supplies and products. If a freight forwarder or carrier wants to do business with any of TAPA's well-heeled members, they must adopt these practices.

Thus market pressures are mounting for participants in the transportation and logistics industries to embrace standards and adopt processes that can make many border-control activities redundant or irrelevant. In response to these pressures, companies are becoming better able to implement safeguards, police themselves, and provide useful and timely information necessary for public security-information that inspectors have traditionally tried to verify independently at border crossings. Theft-resistant transportation networks are more difficult for criminals and terrorists to compromise. Should there be advance intelligence of such a compromise, these information systems will make it easier to locate and interdict a contaminated shipment before it enters a crowded port; alternatively, authorities can put together a "controlled-delivery" sting operation, where the contraband is allowed to reach the intended recipient so that the appropriate arrests can be made.

Still, as noted above, the current situation of the southwest border has not been especially conducive for advancing the use of state-of the-art systems-in fact, the high costs and uncertainty associated with crossing the border has created a transportation sector dominated by small "mom-and-pop" operators. Accordingly, bringing about the kind of transformation that makes the private sector a willing and able partner in supporting the border control mission requires powerful incentives. Happily such an incentive exists if we are thoughtful about how new investments in transportation infrastructure are made at and near the border. Specifically, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century has targeted substantial funding for major roadway improvements under the Coordinated Border Infrastructure Program. As development and management plans for such projects as the "Ports-to-Plain" Corridor and the I-69 NAFTA highway are drawn-up, why not incorporate the development of a "dedicated trade lane?" That is, like commuter "High Occupancy Vehicle" (HOV) lanes found around many metropolitan areas, access to a dedicated trade lane would be restricted to only those vehicles and drivers and that cargo that participates in the new border management regime.

An additional incentive could come by moving many of the border entry inspection processes away from the physical border itself and instead consolidate them into a single trilateral "NAFTA inspection facility" and locate it on a dedicated traffic lane that leads to the border. For instance there is an 18-mile new toll road leading from I-39 to the Mexican state of Nueva Leon via the recently constructed Colombia Bridge on the outskirts of Laredo, Texas. Why not have the United States, Mexico, and Canada agree to grant extraterritorial legal authority within a NAFTA inspection facility placed at the start of that toll road where trucks, drivers, and cargo could be examined by inspectors from all three countries and where each agency is allowed to enforce their respective national laws and regulations for goods and conveyances bound for their jurisdiction. There is already a model for this in France and Great Britain at the entrances of the Chunnel. British and French customs and immigration officials work within a single zone conducting "one-stop" arrival and departure inspections. Similarly, northbound trucks from Mexico City and Monterey and southbound trucks bound for the Mexican interior would have to stop just once at a location where there is plenty of space to conduct inspections so there is no risk of hours-long backups that now routinely plague the bridges. Once the trucks are cleared, the flow of traffic could be closely monitored by use of "intelligent transportation systems" (ITS) technologies.

But simply relocating where inspections take place is not enough. Border control agencies need to fundamentally change the way they are doing business as well. The days of random, tedious, paperbound, labor-intensive border inspection systems-the bane of every legitimate international traveler and business-should be numbered. The manpower constraints inherent in traditional border-control practices guarantee their continuing inability to adequately police the surge in NAFTA commerce. What is the alternative? The answer lies in a relatively new concept being developed by cyber-security experts, known as "anomaly detection."

In the computer industry, "anomaly detection" represents the most promising means for detecting hackers intent on stealing data or transmitting computer viruses. The process involves monitoring the cascading flows of computer traffic with an eye towards discerning what is "normal" traffic; i.e., that which moves by way of the most technologically rational route. Once this baseline is established, software is written to detect that which is aberrant. A good computer hacker will try to look as close as possible to a legitimate user. But, since he is not, he inevitably must do some things differently and good cyber-security software will detect that variation, and deny access. For those hackers who manage to get through, their breach is identified and shared so that this abnormal behavior can be removed from the guidance of what is "normal" and acceptable.

In much the same way, the overwhelming majority of the vehicles, people, and cargo that move across the Southwest border move in predictable patterns. If we have the means to analyze and keep track of these flows, we will have the means to detect "aberrant" behavior. In short, "anomaly detection" of cross-border flows is possible, if the regulatory and enforcement agencies whose daily tasks is to police those flows: (1) are given access to intelligence about real or suspected threats, and (2) are provided the means to gather, share, and mine private sector data that provides a comprehensive picture of "normal" cross border traffic so as to enhance their odds of detecting threats when they materialize.

If the public sector undertakes these changes, the private-sector must also change its attitude about engaging in self-policing and sharing anything but the minimum amounts of relevant data with government agencies. Border control agencies have important and legitimate jobs to perform. The general public wants restrictions on the flows of contraband such as weapons, drugs, and child pornography. Immigration policies require that who enters and who leaves their jurisdictions be monitored and controlled. Many public-health strategies aimed at managing the spread of disease require the identification and isolation of people, livestock, and agricultural products that could place the general population at risk. Safety and environmental threats connected with unsafe shipping and trucking mandate that the transportation sector be monitored. And trade rules must be enforced for trade agreements to be sustainable.

There is an final and particularly sobering reason that we must get border management right-the homeland security imperative of reducing the risk that the Americans will be targeted by a weapons of mass destruction. Terrorists, radical religious or ethnic sects, and rogue states who want to give form to their pique over America's unequaled global reach, can hold few illusions about winning direct contests with U.S. military forces. Instead, the targets of tomorrow increasingly will lie in the civil realm where the economic and cultural components of national power are as vulnerable as Achilles' Heel. And the disturbing trends towards unconventional weapons proliferation, including weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, and biological) portends that they will likely have access to the means for conducting a catastrophic attack. A good place for them to look is our essentially open borders where there is ample opportunity to harm Americans, gain access to critical national infrastructure, and to disrupt the nation's vital transportation lifelines.

While the Bush administration appears poised to spend up to $100 billion to construct a national ballistic missile defense system, the discussion above makes clear that it is not only the nation's "aerospace" that is wide open, but its "terrestrial-, maritime-, and commercial-space" as well. If an adversary wanted a weapon of mass destruction to reach the United States, he is likely to consider the merits of transporting it aboard a vessel, truck, or vehicle.

Most Americans and their defense planners are obviously oblivious to just how open U.S. borders really are. If they were not, they would likely be willing to balance their investment in missile defense with the need to marshal resources to pay for lower-cost border management measures designed to reduce the risk of an attack by unconventional means.

In short, many of the imperatives that have made border control a critical mission in the past remain relevant today. What is different now is that both the threat environment and the commercial and social patterns of interaction across the border are becoming more dynamic, organic, and transnational. As such, the traditional means of managing that border are proving insufficient to advance important security and public policy interests. There is a potential silver lining in this painful reality. Just as the President Eisenhower drew on the national defense imperative to build the nations highway system, there is a growing national security rationale for building the kind of border infrastructure and to provide the border control agencies with the staffing and tools they need so as to improve the facilitation of legitimate commerce across the southwest border while enhancing the capacity to filter the illicit from the licit.

The outline for transformed border management is clear. It requires a risk management approach to policing cross-border flows which includes the close collaboration of the major beneficiaries of an increasingly open North American continent-our neighbors to the North and the South, and the private sector. The stakes of getting this right are also clear. Transforming how the border is managed is an essential step towards assuring the long-term sustainability of globalization since public support for openness ultimately rests with their conviction that the costs of greater openness do not outweigh its benefits.

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