Research: Publications

The Border Patrol's Strategic Muddle

December 3, 2012 | Report

By Tom Barry

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The Border Patrol's Strategic Muddle

How the Nation's Border Guardians Got Stuck in a Policy Conundrum, and How They Can Get Out

Executive Summary

The U.S Border Patrol recently released the 2012-2016 Strategic Plan for border security. The strategic plan, only the third such plan in the agency’s history, stresses that border security operations will be “risk-based, intelligence-driven.” The agency contrasts the new “risk-based” strategy with the “resource-based” strategy of its 2004 strategic plan.

The release of the new strategic plan came on the heels of intense criticism of the Border Patrol’s failure to ensure “operational control” over large sections of the southwestern border. “Operational control” was the stated goal of the 2004 strategic plan.

The new Border Patrol strategy makes not a single reference to the former goal of operational control, and the plan doesn’t include any performance measures. The 2012-2016 strategy also suffers from a failure to specify on what grounds risks will be assessed, how threats will be evaluated, and how new spending will be determined.

Long criticized for eschewing cost-benefit evaluations of its multibillion-dollar border security programs, the Border Patrol does not address how it will resolve these concerns. Nowhere can be found even the hint of a commitment to make its border security programs more transparent, accountable, and cost-effective.

This International Policy Report describes the Border Patrol’s policy conundrum and chronicles how the Border Patrol got stuck in its current strategic muddle. The report offers common-sense prescriptions both for extricating the agency from this strategic muddle and for setting new directions.


Over the past several years, the U.S. Border Patrol has been subject to increasing and wide-ranging criticism. Some critics, particularly on the right, charge that the Border Patrol is not doing enough to “secure the border.” Others, often to the left-of-center, lambaste the agency for abusing immigrants and for intensifying a failing drug war.

Perhaps the harshest criticism of the Border Patrol has come from the government’s own auditing agencies. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have issued a series of scathing reports faulting the Border Patrol for mismanagement, waste, and lack of strategic focus. Despite mounting criticism, the Border Patrol has, however, benefited from a bipartisan consensus about the need to “secure the border.”  As a result, funding for Border Patrol operations has more than doubled over the last ten years.

With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003, the term “border security” largely replaced references to “border control” in official statements. The Border Patrol is a division of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the DHS agency charged with securing the U.S. ports of entry (POEs) and the northern and southwestern land borders. 

Customs and Border Protection is the largest DHS agency, receiving 21% (currently $11.5 billion) of its total funding. CBP routinely explains its border security mission as obstructing the entry of “dangerous goods and dangerous people.”  CBP customs officers are stationed at the land and coastal POEs, while Border Patrol agents patrol the land border between the POEs.

The immensity of the border security largesse cannot, however, be measured solely by the magnitude of CBP’s annual budget allocations. Annual budget allocations for border security do not include the many supplemental and emergency allocations authorized by the Bush and Obama administrations for border security, the economic stimulus funding dedicated to border security operations, or the Pentagon’s spending for National Guard border deployments.

Over the last ten years DHS has spent more than $100 billion in border-security operations.  Yet the Border Patrol is still struggling to formulate a practical and politically viable strategy to guide the spending of this new border security bonanza.

The May 2012 release of the 2012-2016 Border Patrol Strategic Plan by CBP represents the latest attempt to define the meaning of the term “border security” and to formulate a strategy to guide border security operations. 

However, the new strategy fails to alleviate any of the persistent concerns about the Border Patrol’s strategic focus and operational efficiency. Leading congressional members concerned with border policy and the GAO have expressed skepticism about the Border Patrol’s resolve and capacity to address concerns about cost-effectiveness and strategic focus, while faulting the Border Patrol for not including performance measures in its new plan.

A New Strategy Based on Risk Assessments and Intelligence

The Border Patrol released its 2012-2016 Strategic Plan on May 8, 2012 at a special hearing of the Subcommittee on Border and Marine Security of the House Committee on Homeland Security. The Border Patrol describes the new strategy – the third in the agency’s history – as a “risk-based, intelligence-driven” plan to secure the border.

In his introduction to the new strategic plan, former Border Patrol chief and current acting CBP commissioner David Aguilar explained:

The resource base built and the operations conducted over the past two decades have enabled the Border Patrol to focus on developing and implementing a Strategic Plan based on risk: identifying high risk areas and flows and targeting our response to meet those threats. 

This risk-based approach is reflected in the core pillars of the Strategic Plan – Information, Integration and Rapid Response.  These pillars are central to the 21st century Border Patrol we continue to build.  Information and intelligence will empower Border Patrol leadership and agents to get ahead of the threat and to be predictive and proactive.

In his introductory note, Border Patrol chief Michael Fisher promised: “We will build upon an approach that puts the Border Patrol’s greatest capabilities in place to combat the greatest risks.” The slim 30-page, graphic-laden strategy statement includes 44 uses of the word “risk” and 64 references to “threats.” The Border Patrol promises to “apply the principles of risk-management to its mission set.”

In its new strategic plan, the Border Patrol gives no indication how it will rank or prioritize risks and threats. Instead, it merely describes the new bureaucratic apparatus that will make these risk assessments – graphically illustrating this bureaucratic process with a complex and confusing flow chart (See chart on following page).

The Border Patrol claims that it has created the following risk-assessment process:

Integrated Mission Analysis (IMA) uses a systematic and comprehensive methodology to track, assess, and forecast vulnerabilities, consequences, and capabilities of CBP (and, by extension, the U.S. Border Patrol) and matches these with known or potential threats. The resulting Border Assessment Level (BAL) helps CBP answer the question:  Is our capability commensurate with the threat?

The IMA process supports the Border Patrol’s risk-based approach to border security by integrating operational and threat-condition assessments. Once harnessed, these operational statistics, threat indicators, and warnings will be used to estimate risk. Outputs from the IMA process will aid security stakeholders in determining operational gaps and critical threats, vulnerabilities and risks.

Whether the proposed IMA and BAL become firmly established and useful processes within CBP remains to be seen. According to the strategic plan, the analysis and assessment process will allow the agency to evaluate whether the Border Patrol’s “capability [is] commensurate with the threat.” It is unclear, however, how the Border Patrol is defining and evaluating the threats against which its capacities are deployed.

Border Security Gets Three More Pillars

The Border Patrol lacks measures to accompany its new strategy, but it has two sets of three pillars.

Other then assiduously counting the number of immigrants apprehended and the number of pounds (or tons in the case of marijuana) seized, metrics or performance measures are not a strong suit for the Border Patrol. It has spent nearly $6 billion constructing and maintaining the border wall and the virtual fence and at least $600 million on its unmanned aerial vehicle or drone program. Despite continued questions from the GAO and the DHS’s own inspector general, the Border Patrol has been unwilling or unable to say with any specificity how these projects and programs have improved border security.

The Border Patrol is better at creating metaphorical pillars of border security. In this year’s strategic plan, the three “core pillars” of border security are “Information, Integration and Rapid Response.”

Close observers of the evolution of the border’s security since the border security buildup began after 9/11 will be more familiar with the other three oft-cited pillars of border security: Personnel, Infrastructure, and Technology.

The Border Patrol routinely deflects questions from the GAO, the media, and Congress about the measurable benefits of the border wall or the virtual wall with the answer that border security depends on the “right mix” of agents, technology, and tactical infrastructure (such as fencing and lighting). Similarly, the Border Patrol cannot say how many dangerous people and goods have been seized directly as the result of drone surveillance, saying only that drones have “contributed” to the arrests and seizures.

Whenever questioned about the value of one program or another over the past several years, the Border Patrol insists that the architecture of border security rests equally on the three pillars – thereby continually frustrating GAO auditors, congressional oversight committees, researchers, and reporters seeking to gain a better understanding of the effectiveness of one or another border security program. The real answer is that the Border Patrol does not know because it has avoided undertaking pillar-specific and program-specific cost/benefit evaluations.

Evolving Strategy: Numbers and Threats

Rather than clarifying the border security strategy, the 2012-2016 Border Patrol Strategic Plan highlights the difficulty that DHS has had in defining what the newest federal bureaucracy means by “border security.” The new strategy sheds little light on what it will cost the nation to “secure the border” and how threats to border security are assessed and prioritized.

Although the Border Patrol dates back to 1924, it wasn’t until seventy years later that the agency issued its first national strategy. The Border Patrol’s first national strategy, released in 1994, came in response to rising illegal immigration flows through the border’s main urban corridors, mainly north from Juárez and Tijuana. The 1994 “Prevention Through Deterrence” strategy called for blocking the most frequented immigration corridors with concentrated deployments of Border Patrol agents and the targeted buildup of new “tactical infrastructure” such as border walls, stadium lighting, and other barriers. As a result, illegal immigration flows would be diverted, it was argued, to more remote and difficult-to-traverse stretches of the border, thereby creating an effective disincentive for would-be immigrants.

The central objective, only partially successful, of the operations established in accordance with the first strategic plan was to diminish illegal border crossings. As intended, illegal crossings through the targeted sections of the border did decline, in some areas dramatically. But new major south-north immigration corridors emerged, confounding the Border Patrol strategists. As a result, the Border Patrol was pressed to quickly extend its “Prevention Through Deterrence” tactics to other regions of the largely rural areas of the border that had previously seen only trickles of illegal immigration. Another consequence of the 1994 deterrence strategy was the dramatic increase in horrific deaths as immigrants seeking to enter the United States illegally attempted to cross through harsh border landscapes and raging rivers.

Following the 1994 strategic plan, the Border Patrol shifted to threat-centered strategies. There is no reference to the “Prevention Through Deterrence” concept in the latest strategy statements, yet these deterrence tactics continue to guide Border Patrol operations.

The National Border Patrol Strategy of 2004, which came a year after the Border Patrol was folded into the Department of Homeland Security, marked the transition from a “border control” to a “border security” framework. While the priority of the Border Patrol stayed the same – “to establish and maintain operational control over our Nation’s borders” – the focus of that “control” expanded to include terrorists and terrorist weapons, in addition to illegal immigrants. This new counterterrorism mission tapped military terminology – such as “operational control,” “defense-in-depth,” and “situational awareness” – to describe the agency’s new strategic operations.

In introducing the first post-9/11 strategy, CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner, in 2004, tied border control goals to the Bush administration’s war against terrorism, stating, “This goal is vital to national security.”

Adopting military jargon, the Border Patrol in 2004 set forth the strategic concept of “operational control” of the border.  The degree to which the Border Patrol achieved operational control would be the metric by which the progress in ensuring border security would be measured.

Escalating pressure of illegal immigration flows gave rise to the Border Patrol’s first national strategy, while the perceived new threat environment after 9/11 sparked the formulation of the second strategy in 2004. In contrast, the Border Patrol has offered no convincing rationale for formulating its new national strategy.

What precipitated the rather haphazard development of the new strategy was not any change in what the Border Patrol calls the “threat environment” or the change in the numbers of apprehension and seizures. Instead, a political uproar associated with the performance measures associated with the 2004 report sparked the hurried production of the new strategic plan.

DHS and other Bush administration officials began referring to the Border Patrol strategy of instituting operational control over the border, particularly as part of the 2005 DHS initiative called the Secure Border Initiative (SBI). In 2006, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said that the range of SBI programs, including the new border fence and the virtual fence, would result in “operational control” of the southwest border by the end of 2010.

Pressed to show its rate of progress in “securing the border,” DHS and the Border Patrol in 2004 established a border-security schematic designed to document the varying degrees of security – descending from “effective” or full “operational control” to “managed” control, “monitored,” “low-level monitored,” and “remote/low activity.” The Border Patrol based the ranking mostly on the degree of presence of personnel, infrastructure, and technological surveillance, although the subjective evaluations of Border Patrol officials in each sector were also factored in.

When the Border Patrol began releasing its estimates of “operational control” in early 2010, the figures unleashed a firestorm of criticism by border security proponents. Only 13% of the 8,067 miles under Border Patrol jurisdiction were categorized as being under full or effective operational control. Along the southwest border, only 44% of the nearly 2,000 miles were ranked as being under “effective” or “managed operational control.” Along the northern border, just 2% was under operational control by 2010.

Border security hawks lambasted the Border Patrol for its failure to achieve operational control of large stretches of the southwestern border and almost the entire northern border. In turn, they escalated their demands for more fencing, more drones, more agents, more remote ground surveillance and more National Guard on the border.

The Border Patrol countered that the areas that were not under operational control were generally rugged, infrequently crossed sections of the border. While these areas did not meet the high standard of operational control – including fencing, high concentration of agents, and an array of electronic surveillance – they were constantly monitored, explained the Border Patrol.

It should be noted that the 2004 strategic plan did qualify and limit what the Border Patrol meant by operational control. According to the 2004 strategy statement, “Operational control is defined as the ability to detect, respond, and interdict border penetrations in areas deemed as high priority for threat potential or other national security objectives.” What is more, the Border Patrol acknowledged that operational control “may be limited to specific smuggling corridors or other geographically defined areas” – seemingly contradicting the grand ambition of operational control over the Nation’s borders.

The Border Patrol, finding itself in a rhetorical trap of its own making, had dropped all references to “operational” or “effective” control by the end of Fiscal Year 2010.  The concept of operational control is nowhere to be found in the 2012-2016 strategic plan. Nor is there any official explanation by DHS, CBP, or the Border Patrol why this strategic framework was all but erased from official discourse.

Consternation and Skepticism about Border Security Strategy

Consternation and skepticism have been among the main reactions to the Border Patrol’s new border security strategy. The Border Patrol’s failure to define what was really new about the strategy, the plan’s lack of details, and the absence of any metrics to measure the agency’s progress underscored existing concerns about the Border Patrol’s fuzzy strategic focus and lack of accountability.

Since 2010, the Border Patrol has been promising to set forth new quantitative and qualitative measures of its border security operations. Yet the new strategy included no performance measures whatsoever.

Candace Miller, the Michigan Republican who chairs the Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, opened the May 8, 2012 hearing pointedly noting, “The 2012 to 2016 strategy lacks a tangible way to measure our efforts on the border.”  Echoing Miller, Rebecca Gambler, who directs the GAO’s homeland security office, told the subcommittee: “What’s really important and really key going forward is for the Border Patrol and the department [DHS] to move more toward outcome- oriented measures that would allow the department, the Congress and the public to really get a sense of how effective the Border Patrol’s efforts are.”

The Border Patrol’s problems were not limited to concerns about the lack of metrics to evaluate the success of its strategy and border security operations. During the hearing, Border Patrol Chief Fisher had repeated difficulty in explaining the strategic thrust of the new plan.

After Fisher finished presenting the strategy, Miller quizzically paged through the document while expressing her bewilderment:

What is really new in the strategic plan?” she asked Fisher, “I’m looking at it and everything here. I mean, I agree with everything that’s here. But there wasn’t really something that grabbed me as being really new. Is there anything really new in there that you would highlight as a marquee component of this new plan?

Responding, Fisher said: “I’ll give you two quick examples: Change-detection capability and the other one talks about optimizing capability.” By change-detection capability, Fisher explained that it was referring to the Border Patrol’s new high-tech surveillance operations – both in the air through drones or unmanned aerial systems, and on the ground by way of the evolving “virtual fence” project.

In an awkward attempt to explain how these examples related to the “risk-based, intelligence-driven” attributes of the new strategy, Fisher added that the new “change-detection capability” of drones “gives us the ability…to go out and fly sorties along the border, to confirm or deny any changes in that threat environment.” Elaborating, Fisher continued, “So that allows us to use technology to be able to understand where those threats are going to be evolving.” He later notes, “I don’t think that we are maximizing to the extent that we need to all of those capabilities which is a common theme within our strategy now.”

Following up on Miller’s question, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, said she had “one straightforward question” for Fisher: “What do you think is the most important element of that strategy?” Chief Fisher had a one-sentence response: “It’s the focus of – there is a common theme within that strategy that I certainly see as identifying and developing and training future leaders of this organization.”

Missing Performance Measures and Metrics

Since 2010, the Border Patrol has been in a near-desperate search for metrics that will measure its success in controlling the border. After the “operational control” schematic for border security was summarily dropped, DHS promised that it was developing a new, more inclusive framework for measuring border security to be called the Border Conditions Index (BCI).

In addition to the usual numerical indicators of apprehensions of illegal border crossers and seizures of illegal drugs, the promised performance index would include statistics about public safety in the borderland as well as statistics directly related to Border Patrol operations. Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on May 3, 2011, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano noted that the Border Conditions Index would “comprehensively measure security along the southwestern border and the quality of life in the region.”

As described, the BCI would include such measures of borderland life as property values, unemployment rates, and crime statistics. Introducing nontraditional and more varied performance measures would likely underscore the DHS messaging that the border is safer, more secure, and better protected than ever before.

Crime levels, traditionally lower on the border than elsewhere in the nation, particularly in urban areas, have decreased in the borderlands despite rising population levels. Supporting its assertions about its border security achievement, the proposed index would have allowed the Border Patrol to point to unprecedented levels of cooperation among federal, state, and local law enforcement officers – a product not only of the higher per capita presence of federal agents, but also of a bounty of border security funding directed to state and local police and sheriff deputies. Nowhere else in the nation is there such a pervasive presence of drug task forces.

The proposed Border Conditions Index has apparently been dropped. One obvious problem was that the index would have been almost completely disconnected from both the security-centered framework of post-9/11 CBP strategies and the new emphasis on  “risk-based strategy, intelligence-driven” operations. Another probable reason for the disappearance of BCI is that it would have likely generated criticism by border security hardliners that the DHS measures of borderland life incorporate less tangible factors such as the purported rise of fear of spillover violence and types of crime not included in crime indices, such as vandalism by illegal border crossers.

The Border Patrol is facing increasing pressure to set forth new measures by which its strategic goals and operational objectives can be evaluated. At the May 8 hearing, titled “Measuring Border Security,” Miller asked Chief Fisher: “When we hear terms like ‘the border is more secure than ever,’ that may be so but how do you measure it?” The GAO testimony at the hearing underscored this concern about the lack of metrics to evaluate Border Patrol spending, concluding in its statement about border security measures: DHS has “reduced information provided to Congress and the public about program results.”

Having apparently ditched “border conditions” as a set of metrics to gauge its border security achievements, the Border Patrol promises to issue its new performance measures in early 2013. Meanwhile, it has issued a new strategic plan that doubles down on its 2004 focus on threats and risks, while also putting new stress on how its risk-based operations will be intelligence-driven. Presumably, any new set of performance measures will necessarily provide a verifiable and quantitative set of indicators of the progress it is making on identifying risks, assessing threats, and targeting these dangers in the borderlands the agency patrols and protects. Lacking new performance measures, the Border Patrol has reverted to what it calls an “interim metric” of border control, namely the number of illegal border crossers apprehended by the agency.

In its new strategic plan, the Border Patrol did include a couple of new initiatives to achieve border security. It is committed to a “whole-of-government” approach and to “community engagement.” It is likely that if new performance measures are issued to accompany the new strategic plan, they will include metrics that point to the increasing ways that the Border Patrol is working with other governmental agencies – federal, state, local, and tribal – in its border security operations and how it is becoming newly engaged with border communities themselves.

Border Patrol chief Fisher told the hearing that the Border Patrol is shifting from community relations to community engagement, explaining how the Border Patrol is increasingly reaching out to borderland residents and leaders as the agency’s eyes and ears. The Border Patrol is training every agent to  “recognize that every individual that they encounter is a potential source of information.”

Without careful consideration, this represents a potentially dangerous new intrusion of the federal government into civil society. As is, the principal targets of border security programs are immigrants (few of whom constitute security threats) and the illegal drug market (virtually all marijuana between POEs where Border Patrol operates). Lacking credible risk-based guidelines for community engagement, the Border Patrol’s new determination to “partner” with borderland “stakeholders” will do nothing to increase homeland security and will instead empower vigilante anti-immigrant activism and a culture of snitches.

“More Secure Than Ever,” or “Out of Control”?

DHS Secretary Napolitano, former CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin, and Border Patrol Chief Fisher repeatedly attempted to counter the rising fury among House Republicans and border security activists with a shower of statistics demonstrating the extent of the Obama administration’s commitment to border security.

Still, DHS and the Border Patrol are caught in contradictions and threat-assessments of their own making. The bombastic declarations by the Bush administration and by the Border Patrol about the Secure Border Initiative – about the high level of border security the combination of a border wall, a virtual fence, and a near doubling of the Border Patrol would achieve in several years – has made it difficult for the Border Patrol to scale down the expectations and demands of the border security hawks.

The dramatic decrease in illegal border crossings by immigrants, along with the skyrocketing fees demanded by immigrant smugglers, provide indisputable statistical evidence that the border security buildup is certainly making it ever more difficult to cross the southwestern border illegally.

More gruesome evidence can be found in the increasing number of immigrant deaths as desperate women, men, and children attempt, unsuccessfully, to cross the border along its most forbidding stretches of deserts, mountains, and raging waters.

The rising seizures of illegal drugs do point to increased border vigilance. Yet, the continuing capability of smugglers to satisfy increasing U.S. demand for most illegal drugs underscores the validity of the charges by border hawks that the border is still not “secured.”

Threats and Numbers

The Border Patrol has squandered much of the goodwill, trust, and credibility that resounded to its border control mission after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The billions of dollars wasted in flawed high-tech projects, and the agency’s unwillingness to subject its many new border-security initiatives to cost-benefit evaluations and risk-based assessments, have given rise to new skepticism about border policy.

The Border Patrol rightly links its security mission to an assessment of risks and threats and to a new risk-management commitment. Yet, as has been the practice of the Border Patrol both before and after 9/11, there is no evidence that the agency has instituted rigorous risk-based strategies for its operations and resource distributions.

Nowhere in the new strategy plan is there any attempt even to briefly sketch what are the “risks” and “threats” to which the Border Patrol will be strategically responding. What, for example, are the top-level threats faced on the southern and northern borders, and what are the type of illegal entries that are regarded as lower or minimal threats to national security, homeland security, or border security?

Instead, the Border Patrol implicitly equates numbers and threats. In the post-9/11 lexicon, all illegal entries are defined as threats. Rather than undertaking traditional threat assessments, the Border Patrol has dumbed down its definitions of threats and risks. Its risk-based, intelligence-driven strategy, therefore, identifies the areas of highest risk as the areas of the border with the highest number of illegal entries.

Clearly, the nation should be attentive to possible cross-border threats to its security. As such, the federal government – although not necessarily a homeland security department – must undertake serious threat assessments and appropriate risk-based operations.

The Border Patrol asserts that its main mission is to protect the homeland against terrorists and terrorist weapons.  Inexplicably, however, the agency has never included terrorism protection as a performance indicator. Nor has the Border Patrol offered any evidence that its “intelligence-driven” border security programs actually focus on terrorists and terrorist networks.  One likely reason that the Border Patrol does not address its counterterrorism in any detail is that the agency’s border security buildup on the southwestern border has not resulted in the apprehension of members of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, as identified by the State Department. Experts in counterterrorism agree that there is little risk that foreign terrorist organizations would rely on illegal border crossings – particularly across the U.S.-Mexico border – for entry into the United States.

The Obama administration has stressed an urgent need for national and international cooperation to “combat transnational organized crime.” Although never mentioned previously, the Border Patrol over the past three years has warned of the threat posed by transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) to border security.

Unfortunately, the Border Patrol has supported its escalated threat assessments about TCOs by counting the arrests of all drug couriers as blows to the TCOs, implying or stating that immigrants and other illegal border crossers carrying varying amounts of marijuana (or in rare cases other illegal drugs) are “transnational criminals.”

Since the creation of DHS, CBP, together with ICE, have attempted to demonstrate that immigration enforcement responds to risk-based criteria by elevating the profiles of “criminal aliens” and “fugitive aliens.” DHS has found broad support for its professed commitment to prioritize the arrest and deportation of the most dangerous immigrants, both those here legally and illegally.

However, the creditability and integrity of these risk-based immigration enforcement initiatives have been badly damaged by the failure to abide by this stated process of prioritization. Meanwhile, the DHS agencies have launched an array of immigration-enforcement initiatives that result in the categorization of larger populations of both legal and illegal immigrants as “criminal aliens,” notably ICE’s Secure Communities and the Border Patrol’s Operation Streamline. The widespread use of illegal recreational drugs in the United States combined with harsh anti-immigrant statutes have resulted in routine deportation of otherwise law-abiding legal immigrants for even minor drug violations – thereby making a travesty of the risk-based criteria.

Formulating a risk-based strategy and associated performance measures for immigration enforcement on the border presents special difficulties for the Border Patrol, which is charged with apprehending all illegal border crossers. At the heart of the challenge is that its enforcement responsibilities are within the context of an inadequate and counterproductive immigration policy.

The Border Security Muddle

The creation of the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11 precipitated the border security muddle – with strategic, political, and economic consequences.

Without duly considering the strategic implications, the administration shifted the border and immigration-enforcement agencies from the Justice Department into DHS. From the start, DHS was an unwieldy bureaucracy whose function was never entirely clear. The department’s law-enforcement, intelligence, counterterrorism, and security responsibilities overlap with those found within the Justice Department, White House, intelligence community, and Defense Department – creating a strategic mess. The federal government has yet to formulate a definition of homeland security that would justify the continued existence of this hastily established, unwieldy department.

Instead of adding a counterterrorism dimension to its law-enforcement mission, security became the core mission of the Border Patrol. Its core function – namely patrolling the border to deter or apprehend illegal border crossers – was rhetorically reconfigured to match its post-9/11 mission. Accordingly, immigrants and illegal drugs were relabeled as security threats, as “dangerous people and goods.”

This mismatch between the Border Patrol’s traditional law-enforcement functions and its new security mission has resulted in a strategic muddle. The 2012-2016 Border Patrol Strategic Plan illustrates the disjuncture between the agency’s new counterterrorism mission and its longtime border-control operations. Rather than determining that security objectives should be guided by targeted strategic planning, the Border Patrol persists in its awkward efforts to shoehorn traditional border control functions into a border security strategy.

DHS and the Border Patrol have unwisely doubled down on a security-centered strategy for border control. Yet, as the new strategic plan makes clear, the identified risks and threats almost exclusively concern the traditional targets of border patrols – immigrants and drugs.

The border security muddle has also had political consequences.

DHS categorizes all illegal border crossing entries as security threats – thereby committing the nation to the impractical and monumentally costly goal of securing the border. As the Border Patrol knows well, it is virtually impossible to ensure effective control over America’s boundaries. That would mean sealing more than 7,500 miles of land border and more than 12,000 miles of coast while monitoring the legal entry of more than 175 million visitors each year.

By promising border security through operational control, the Border Patrol has left itself open to critics who charge that America remains vulnerable despite the billions of dollars spent in border security programs. As a result, the Border Patrol has found itself subject to sharp political criticism and escalating demands that the border be secured.

Instead of toning down its border security commitments and adopting more pragmatic positions, the Border Patrol has further muddled border policy in its new strategic plan. The agency once again failed to explain in a straightforward manner its dual challenge. On the one hand, it is now tasked with protecting the nation against the entry of foreign terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, it is charged with enforcing immigration laws and fighting the war on drugs.

The two functions should be guided by different strategies and involve different types of operations. Unfortunately, the new strategic plan subsumes all border operations under its counterterrorism role – maintaining the post-9/11 myth that all pressures the agency faces on the border are security threats. Indeed, the new strategic plan increases the strategic emphasis on security, risks, and threats. It is no surprise, then, that the agency is floundering as it attempts to formulate meaningful performance measures.

In addition, the border security muddle is fraught with adverse economic consequences.

In the name of securing the border, the Border Patrol has insisted that no expense should be spared.  Nearly ten years ago the Border Patrol committed itself to a new mission of securing the border against threats to the homeland.  During this period DHS has spent more than $100 billion in various border security operations. The GAO and congressional members have long demanded that the Border Patrol measure the cost-effectiveness of the agency’s various initiatives and operations. But Border Patrol has held itself above the most basic standards of transparency and accountability while resisting the most elementary cost-benefit evaluations.

The Border Patrol is fond of making bold pronouncements about border security and is constantly launching new initiatives, as amply demonstrated in this new plan. New rhetorical flourishes about border security are not needed. Rather, U.S. border policy merits a serious strategic review of the border security mission with the aim of producing a strategic plan that contains substance and displays vision.

Unfortunately, the Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol remain trapped in a policy muddle of their own making.

Conclusion: Strategy with Consequences

Reacting to sharp, often politically motivated critiques of its measures of border security, the Border Patrol released a new strategic plan in May 2012. However, the strategy is difficult to discern, and the plan includes no performance measures. 

“The Strategic Plan sets a firm foundation for the continued evolution of the Border Patrol as an integral part of CBP’s overall border management and homeland security enterprise,” said Acting CBP Commissioner David Aguilar.  The Border Patrol’s new plan states that its strategy and operations will be “risk-based” and “intelligence-driven.” Yet, it does not include a methodology for assessing risks or for leveraging intelligence to meet identified threats to homeland security. Nor does the Border Patrol explain – either in the new strategy or elsewhere – how risk-management will determine the directional focus and budgetary specifics of border funding.

The 2012-2016 Border Patrol Strategic Plan is not a serious document. The plan includes repeated references to vague tactics such as rapid response, intelligence, community engagement, whole-of-government approaches, and inter-governmental integration. Full of platitudes, patriotisms, military jargon, and abstractions, the strategy statement is essentially a public-relations document.

The “firm foundation” that CBP Chief Aguilar sees is manifestly flimsy and unprofessional. The Strategic Plan has no real plan, no timelines, no summary of the evolving geopolitical context for border control, no strategic focus, and no baselines or metrics to measure the Border Patrol’s progress in securing the border.


As the nation transitions away from its post-9/11 fears and wars, U.S. border strategy needs to be overhauled and updated. A new strategy for border control should be closely linked to a penetrating review of counterterrorism, the drug war, and immigration policies.

The time is auspicious for such a revision. New budgetary and debt concerns, escalating critiques of immensely expensive and shamefully ineffective border security programs, and expanding critiques of the drug war have opened up new political space. Recommendations for new strategic directions of the Border Patrol include the following:

One:  Moving forward, DHS must define what it means by “border security,” and the Border Patrol must go back to the drawing board to formulate a more comprehensive and cogent strategy, along with closely linked performance measures. 

Two: The Border Patrol must demonstrate that its “metrics” are indeed based on closely considered threat assessments and risk-management processes. As part of its strategic thinking, the agency must do the following: categorize risks and threats, prioritize them, justify this prioritization, mount programs to target these prioritized threats, and establish a methodology to measure performance.

Three: DHS must distinguish between vulnerability and probability in its border operations. Simply because it is possible that a band of foreign terrorists along with weapons of mass destruction could enter the United States by illegally crossing the border doesn’t mean that it is likely. Border Patrol operations must assess risks based on probability – not on mere possibility. Without risk assessments based in probability, there would be virtually no limit to border security spending. Similarly, the costs of border security investments should be proportional to verifiable benefits.

Four: The Border Patrol should immediately desist in making escalated threat assessments about illegal drugs and drug-smuggling operations. The crossing of illegal drugs has long characterized the border and will continue to do so as long as there is a U.S. market for these substances.Currently, the Border Patrol routinely labels illegal border crossers carrying marijuana as being accomplices or members of Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs), thereby demonstrating its lack of strategic focus.

Five: The Border Patrol should, as part of its risk-based and intelligence-driven strategy, maintain a near-exclusive focus on the TCO hierarchies and their enforcers. Likewise, the Border Patrol should end its characterization of all drug-trade networks as TCOs but instead focus on those designated as TCOs by the State Department.

Six: Marijuana is not a security threat, and there is mounting momentum for its decriminalization on both sides of the border. More than 95% of the Border Patrol’s drug war activities involve marijuana. This is a waste of scarce government resources; it diverts DHS from actual security threats, and contributes to the unnecessary militarization of the border. Administratively, DHS could, and should, mandate that the Border Patrol end what is, in effect, its strategic focus on the marijuana drug war.

Seven: As part of its stated determination to pursue risk-based border protection, the Border Patrol should deprioritize immigration enforcement. A credible risk-management process cannot justify operations that make no distinction between truly dangerous individuals and ordinary immigrants seeking work and family reunification. The Border Patrol should instead target border bandits who prey upon vulnerable immigrants and the smugglers of truly dangerous illegal and prescription drugs. The primary responsibility of the Border Patrol’s intelligence and risk-assessment divisions (working closely with other federal agencies) is the guarding of the border against intrusions by terrorists.

Eight: In recent years, CBP has dramatically increased southbound inspections as part of the Obama administration’s recognition that drug-related violence in Mexico is a “shared responsibility.” Weapons flows into Latin America should be a prominent component of Border Patrol and CBP strategies. CBP should stop its routine, largely ineffective southbound border inspections. As part of its new commitment to “community engagement,” the Border Patrol should focus instead on launching operations that directly target the U.S. gun sales networks – which flourish in border states, particularly Texas and Arizona – that supply criminal elements in Latin America.

Nine: The Border Patrol must respond to GAO recommendations that the agency undertake serious cost-benefit evaluations of each programmatic component of its border security operations. Congress and the U.S. public deserve to know in detail the costs and associated benefits of multimillion-dollar expenditures on each of the various tactical infrastructure and high-tech projects.

Ten: In setting its performance metrics the Border Patrol must establish transparent procedures that will allow Congress, government auditors, and the public to evaluate the effectiveness of its many new operations and initiatives in successfully targeting the threats to the homeland on what the Border Patrol calls “America’s frontline.”

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