OPINION

Opinion: United States unprepared to meet threat from mass migration

NOGALES, AZ - DECEMBER 09:  A suspected narco obvervation house stands on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border fence on December 9, 2014 near Nogales, Arizona. With increased manpower and funding in recent years, the Border Patol has seen the number illegal crossings and apprehensions of undocumented immigrants decrease in the Tucson sector. Agents are waiting to see if the improved U.S. economy and housing construction will again draw more immigrants from the south.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

NOGALES, AZ - DECEMBER 09: A suspected narco obvervation house stands on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border fence on December 9, 2014 near Nogales, Arizona. With increased manpower and funding in recent years, the Border Patol has seen the number illegal crossings and apprehensions of undocumented immigrants decrease in the Tucson sector. Agents are waiting to see if the improved U.S. economy and housing construction will again draw more immigrants from the south. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)  (2014 Getty Images)

More than 500,000 migrants have arrived at Europe’s doorstep this year, nearly twice as many as last year. In an attempt to halt the waves of people fleeing war-torn areas, Hungry declared a state of emergency and sent police and soldiers to its border with Serbia, across which thousands of migrants have been crossing. When it comes to border security, lines of razor-wire and soldiers is a proposition some in the United States might support, but from experience, we know this is woefully insufficient to keep a border secure and large-scale migration in check.

Sharing information and empowering the frontline commanders and local law enforcement will not, on its own, yield a secure border, but it will certainly lead to a border that is more secure than it is today.

- Nelson Balido

In 2013, a group of more than 150 Mexican nationals, many of them gang affiliated, simultaneously rushed the U.S. border in California by dashing across the Tijuana river channel. With rubber bullets, tear gas, and tasers, Border Patrol agents managed to turn back the crowd, but it was a stiff fight. What if, instead of 200 or 300 people rushing the border, we were faced with thousands of loosely coordinated would-be border crossers?

The U.S. Coast Guard has practiced for such a scenario. In the past, they conducted interdiction exercises simulating an attempted massive migration from Cuba. The consistent conclusion was that the United States does not have the assets to stop massive migration. Along the border, just by the numbers, a couple hundred agents have no hope of stopping thousands of people approaching en masse.

So what do we do? Building an enormous wall, as some Republican presidential candidates have floated, takes time and money we don’t have, to say nothing of the fact that a 10-foot wall just inspires someone else to build an 11-foot ladder. And we do not have the manpower or technical infrastructure to watch nearly 2,000 miles of border waiting for a ladder-wielding Mexican to make their move. Physical barriers and deterrents have a role, but more important now is fostering the information sharing between stakeholders, informing law enforcement and border patrol efforts. Unfortunately, border and illegal migration information only appears to flow in one direction—to Washington, DC.

The state and local assets working every day to secure the border are receiving limited intelligence and insight from the Federal government that could help them better accomplish their mission and anticipate times or areas of illegal crossings. Some sheriffs near the southern border lament all they receive are quasi-relevant media clippings containing vague kernels of info that could hardly be dubbed “intelligence.”

This month marked 14 years since al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks of September 11. After that tragic day, we learned one reason the attack was successful was because U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies weren’t talking to each other. We had many pieces of the 9/11 puzzle, but they were spread out across siloed local, state and federal agencies. That acknowledgement was one of the primary reasons the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created—to bring all assets under the same roof where they could collaborate towards a safer nation.

And yet, here we are again. Our agencies are segregated, their mission areas siloed. A failure to collaborate and share information hurts border security. Conversely, intelligence sharing and coordinated efforts create a force multiplier effect that empowers and accelerates our border security efforts. With more documents, phones, notes, photos, e-mail, social media and other materials seized from illegal immigrants, border security assets can begin tying together disparate pieces of information towards a clearer understanding of the threat environment. This method of document and media exploitation was used successfully throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it was famously the approach used by the CIA officer who tracked Osama bin Laden to Abbottabad, Pakistan.  

From these data inputs, law enforcement can find patterns and exploit predictability, better meeting the ever-evolving challenge presented by persistent illegal entries. However, intelligence is only valuable if it informs action, and currently, the Joint Task Force (JTF) commanders along the U.S.-Mexico borders are beholden to the political winds in Washington. Much like the DHS concept, JTFs are designed to bring local, state and federal assets to the same table where they can share information and tactics and plan coordinated efforts.

To be fair, the JTFs are just getting started, and during this ramp-up time, it is crucial that the table be set to ensure that a decade of best practices within the Department of Defense are put in place without having to run back to the Beltway every time they want to act, which diminishes the advantages inherent in a nimble, frontline team reviewing up-to-date intelligence. The JTF commanders must be empowered and trusted to take the right action because they, more than anyone in Washington, know the landscape, the communities, the actors and the challenges. They must have the flexibility they need to act on intelligence in a way that best supports border security.

We know what massive migration would look like; we need look no farther than Europe. The United States is in no way prepared to face a challenge of that magnitude, and there is reason to think such a challenge could present itself. 

Currently, the U.S. dollar is strong relative to many foreign currencies, including the Mexican peso. One U.S. dollar is worth nearly 17 pesos in Mexico, which is a large incentive to seek employment in the United States. Meanwhile, the threat of another wave of unaccompanied alien children looms large, and persistent instability throughout the Latin American world can be an impetus to pack up and have a go at the U.S. border. Sharing information and empowering the frontline commanders and local law enforcement will not, on its own, yield a secure border, but it will certainly lead to a border that is more secure than it is today.

Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.  Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido

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