Immigration Reform: The Key to Border Security

Key Points

  • Under the new national security framework, migrants are classified with terrorists and drug smugglers as threats to national security.
  • The U.S. Border Patrol is increasing security specifically to combat people smuggling. However, tightened border security has increased migrants’ reliance on professional smugglers.
  • The construction of border security infrastructure aimed solely at stopping migrant flows has increased with the new national security rhetoric.
  • Increased border patrol security is pushing migrants into inhospitable stretches of desert and increasing risks.

"The Border Patrol’s mission is to provide for the national security of the United
by preventing the illegal entry of people, goods, and contraband across our
sovereign borders."
–Jayson Ahern, Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, May 8, 2003.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, immigration policies and border security became a top priority for the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is now responsible for border security under the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (BCBP), has taken advantage of
the security debate to push forward anti-migrant policies in the name of national
defense. Migrants have now been lumped in with terrorists and drug smugglers
as a serious threat to national security, and the U.S. Border Patrol–under
the leadership of BCBP–is pushing aggressive migrant deterrence policies.

The Border Patrol is beefing up its staffing and stepping up construction
of infrastructure along the U.S. southwestern border, under the plans set
out by the Southwest Border Strategy from the early 1990s. Plans are underway
to complete a triple fencing project in San Diego, California, and numerous
fencing plans are being put forward for other stretches of the Arizona border.
Most alarming was a proposal set forth in October 2002 to fence off 250 miles
of the Arizona-Mexico border. While this plan was retracted due to intense
public pressure, the Border Patrol continues to submit piecemeal proposals
to build parts of this massive fence. All the project documents being submitted
cite terrorism as one of the main justifications for these construction projects.

The Southwest Border Strategy is a failed policy that forces migrants into
inhospitable stretches of desert, causing hundreds of deaths a year without
actually stemming the tide of migrants who successfully enter the United States.
The terrorist argument takes advantage of public fears of terrorist attacks
to combat the unrelated problem of illegal immigration.

Moreover, while migrants face increased hazards crossing the southwest
border due to the heightened security measures, the administration is scapegoating
immigrant smugglers as the main cause of deaths along the border. Coyotes,
as they are known, thrive under increased security. Since most border crossers
cannot reach the United States on their own now, they are forced to rely on
professional smugglers who are familiar with Border Patrol operations and
patrol routes. The demand for coyote services is growing rapidly as migrants
seek ways to elude the reinforced security that the U.S. is putting into place.

The Bush administration must face the reality that the only true solution
to gaining control over the southwest border is to create legal mechanisms
to allow workers from the south to enter the United States. The nation needs
a comprehensive immigration reform package that addresses the demand for workers
at home and that treats workers who come to the U.S. in search of a better
life in a humane fashion.


The New Rhetoric: Migrants as

Almost immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. borders were affected by
a new political reality. That same day, all legal border crossings from Mexico
into the U.S. were prohibited for 48 hours, shutting down commerce and preventing
people from entering or leaving the United States. Although the borders were
reopened, increased security at border crossing points continues to hamper
the smooth flow of people and goods; crossing times between major cities–like
Tijuana, and San Diego or Ciudad Juarez and El Paso–can still exceed four
hours on any given day. The Bush administration has had to find ways to facilitate
the U.S-Mexico trade relationship while justifying its increased security

By December 2001, the administration had articulated its new strategy.
In a speech on immigrant smuggling, Attorney General John Ashcroft stated:
"The terrorist attacks of September 11th remind Americans in the most
painful way of the need to defend our borders while keeping them open to peaceful,
freedom-loving people. We remain committed to welcoming legal immigrants,
but will not tolerate violations of our borders. We will have even less patience
for those who seek to violate the nation’s immigration laws." This statement
clearly articulates a before and after in the administration’s view of migrants:
from the positive language used to describe working migrants from the south
during immigration dialogues with Mexico’s President Vicente Fox of Mexico
before the attacks, to a description of all illegal migrants as threats to
national security only months after.

Once the DHS absorbed all responsibility for border control functions at
the beginning of 2003, the rhetoric that intertwines terrorism and illegal
migration had been fully developed. The new BCBP merged immigration inspectors
from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), agricultural inspectors
from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, customs inspectors from
the U.S. Customs Service, and the entire Border Patrol. Before Sept. 11, these
agencies had minimal responsibilities over national security. Now, their original
missions and intent have been overshadowed by the "war against terrorism."

In congressional testimony, Jayson Ahern, a senior official at BCBP, states,
"The priority mission of BCBP is to prevent terrorists and terrorist
weapons from entering the United States. This extraordinarily important priority
mission means improving security at our physical borders … In sum, the
BCBP’s missions include apprehending individuals attempting to enter the United
States illegally; stemming the flow of illegal drugs and other contraband;
protecting our agricultural and economic interests from harmful pests and
diseases; protecting American business …" Here migrants are not
only listed as one of the terrorist threats that BCBP is responsible for deterring,
they are listed as the first threat–before trafficking in drugs and other
illegal goods. Ranking migrants on the terrorist threat list has become standard
practice for BCBP.


Why are Migrants Terrorists?

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, legitimate fears over who is in the
United States without our knowing grew significantly. Even though all the
terrorists involved in the attacks entered the U.S. with legal visas, the
suspicion that terrorists lurk among undocumented residents is understandable.
However, instead of recognizing that people enter the U.S. for many different
reasons, DHS deemed all illegal residents suspect. Because the vast majority
of illegal residents are workers, and the majority of illegal workers are
of Mexican or Latin American origin, this group now bears the brunt of DHS

The agency has focused its efforts on immigrant smugglers, known along
the southwest border as coyotes or polleros. The rationale is that terrorists
can take advantage of the clandestine people-smuggling routes used by coyotes
to enter the United States. Thomas Homan of the Bureau of Immigration and
Customs Enforcement (BICE), a new division of DHS, explains: "The national
and international enforcement environment changed significantly after the
Sept. 11 attacks. BICE places a significant emphasis on targeting alien smuggling
organizations that present threats to national security. This emphasis recognizes
that terrorists and their associates are likely to align themselves with specific
alien smuggling networks to obtain undetected entry into the United States.
In addition to the emerging terrorist threat, three factors have created an
environment in which terrorists and smuggling enterprises may combine their
criminal efforts to pose a significant national and international threat.
These factors are: the involved criminal organizations’ growing volume and
sophistication; their ability to exploit public corruption; and lax immigration
controls in source and transit countries."

Despite asserting that terrorists and people-smugglers have the potential
to work together, Homan provides no evidence of any actual connections between
the two. He also fails to recognize that immigrant smugglers’ main function
is to move workers into the United States. DHS has yet to make public any
credible links between terrorists and people smugglers.

While DHS might have a rational fear of coyotes for their possible use
by terrorists, the department fails to recognize the underlying dynamics that
create a need for immigrant smugglers. Before the implementation of the Southwest
Border Strategy in 1993, the majority of migrants entered the U.S. unassisted,
crossing through major urban areas that provided cover for them once they
arrived. The coyotes were a minor phenomenon, reflected in the low rates they
charged–an average of $300.

The Southwest Border Strategy seeks to move migration out of urban areas
and into rural or uninhabited stretches of the border, on the theory that
migrants will not take the added risks to their lives by crossing in these
more hazardous areas. Over the past ten years, this gamble has proven deadly
and wrong. Border Patrol statistics show that over 2,200 people have died
entering the United States through the southwest in the past six years. As
a result, the demand for coyotes has risen dramatically. Migrants need guides
who can show them routes to enter the U.S. while avoiding detection by the
Border Patrol.

Border Patrol statistics also show that migration has not decreased since
1993, but remained steady. What the Border Patrol does not acknowledge is
that increased border security has caused the people-smuggling industry to
flourish. The tighter the border gets, the greater need migrants have for
coyotes. Again, coyotes’ fees reflect this phenomenon; they now charge on
average $1,500 per person.

BICE states that one of the main threats coming from immigrant smugglers
is their "growing volume and sophistication." Ironically, this threat
has grown in response to the Border Patrol’s efforts to tighten border security.
DHS has created a dynamic in which the more it tightens security to combat
coyotes, the more sophisticated the smuggling rings become. To date, there
has been no recognition that the only way to diminish the threat posed by
immigrant smugglers through potential ties to terrorists is to eliminate the
economic rationale for their existence. If migrants could enter the United
States in search of employment through legal channels, immigrant smuggling
operations would instantly become obsolete.

In addition to diminishing the capacity of people-smuggling rings, a comprehensive
immigration reform would serve to document the millions of illegal residents
currently in the United States. However, DHS continues to propose unfeasible
solutions based on militarizing the border.


What’s in it for DHS?

As a result of the militarization response to illegal migration, the Bureau
of Customs and Border Protection is receiving a dramatic increase in funding
for new technology, infrastructure, and staffing. It has consistently cited
the equation between migration and terrorism to justify these increases. Richard
M. Stana, Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at BCBP states,
"In our last report on the Southwest Border Strategy in August 2001,
we reported that the Border Patrol estimated it would need between 11,700
and 14,000 agents, additional support personnel, and hundreds of millions
of dollars in additional technology and infrastructure to fully implement
the Southwest Border Strategy… However, this estimate was made before
the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks…"

According to DHS budget request information, Border and Transportation
Security accounts for roughly 50% of the DHS’ proposed 2004 budget, some $18
billion out of $36.2 billion. This is double the funding that the combined
agencies in this category were receiving in 2002. Of this amount, $6.7 billion
is for BCBP alone–a 33% increase in funding since 2002.

BCBP’s Ahern of the Assistant Commissioner’s Office for Field Operations
explains the increase in resources. "After the terrorist attacks of Sept.
11, efforts were stepped up to ‘harden’–to prevent unauthorized crossings
of–the northern and southern land borders. In addition to staffing increases,
the hardening of these ports of entry involved the installation of gates,
signs, lights, and remote surveillance systems at ports of entry, many of
them in remote locations."

In October 2002, the Border Patrol began to submit new plans for infrastructure
along the Arizona border with Mexico. It also accelerated plans for the completion
of a triple fence across 14 miles of border in the San Diego, California area.
While the San Diego fence has already received funding, the Arizona projects
would require additional funding, over and above the request for fiscal year

The October 2002 Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) provided
by the Border Patrol for Arizona provided the first and, so far, only details
of the extent of construction proposed. (Environmental Impact Statements are
required by law under the National Environmental Protection Act to evaluate
the effect of government construction on the environment, including human
communities.) The EIS covers plans to build two parallel fences approximately
15 feet high and more than 250 miles long, separated by a patrol road. The
two fences would act to trap migrants in between, where they could be more
easily apprehended. The plan includes over 800 miles of road construction
and improvement, the installation of hundreds of stadium lights, remote video
surveillance cameras, and ground motion detectors. This would amount to a
fence across three-fourths of the state of Arizona–the largest fence constructed
in the world to date. It would also create one of the most militarized borders
in the world.

The EIS concludes its discussion of "Purpose and Need" by stating:
"Following the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001, the
U.S. Attorney General emphasized the need to prevent terrorism. The INS and
USBP [Border Patrol] are key elements in responding to this new threat to
our nation and its citizens. The ability of the USBP to insure the integrity
and security of our national borders would be an integral part of this effort
to deter and prevent terrorism. The deployment of operation infrastructure,
and technology strategies along the U.S.-Mexico border are key elements in
the USBP’s efforts to deter and prevent terrorists from entering the U.S."

Despite affirming that fencing is an integral part of the Border Patrol’s
anti-terrorist strategy, the document provides no specific details of how
the fence fits into anti-terrorist strategy. It does, however, go into specific
detail of how it prevents migrants from entering the U.S. This is another
clear indication of how the Border Patrol is usurping anti-terrorist language
to further its anti-migrant work.

The Border Patrol withdrew the October 2002 EIS from consideration after
receiving public pressure, stating, "The EIS addressed a ‘worst-case
scenario’ and can be thought of as having little utility except in the case
of a mass invasion." Despite this stunning withdrawal of the EIS, the
Border Patrol plans to release what it calls a "more realistic"
proposal in the summer of 2003. The withdrawal letter indicates that the new
EIS will still contain infrastructure proposals.

In withdrawing the EIS, the Border Patrol stated that it never intended
to fence off Arizona from Mexico but the agency continues to submit smaller
environmental assessment documents that call for the construction of fencing
projects across the Arizona border. The only difference between these smaller
documents and the October 2002 EIS is that rather than targeting the entire
state border, the newer documents tackle 20 to -30-miles strips of border
separately. The overall effect is to make it more difficult for citizen groups
to monitor construction plans. It also allows the Border Patrol to disavow
a comprehensive fencing project, while putting pieces of that very puzzle
together at a slower pace.

Just weeks before withdrawing the comprehensive EIS, the Border Patrol
issued four Environmental Assessment Documents proposing new infrastructure
in Arizona that ranged from fencing construction to remote camp construction
in the Arizona desert. Of the four documents, the environmental assessment
for infrastructure in the Naco-Douglas Corridor of Arizona hints most at a
continuation of the October 2002 strategy. In this document, the Border Patrol
proposes to build more than 22.5 miles of primary fence and 18 miles of secondary
fencing, almost 65 miles of roads, and 13 miles of permanent lighting. The
proposed infrastructure is uncannily similar to what was discussed in the
October 2002 EIS. The completed infrastructure would effectively seal off
the entire border between Naco and Douglas, and extend a wall for over 30
miles from the Arizona-New Mexico border to the west (including already existing
fencing in the Douglas and Naco areas).

In proposing this new infrastructure, the Border Patrol uses the exact
same anti-terrorist language found in the October 2002 EIS. It goes one step
further in stating that nationals from 56 different countries were detained
over fiscal year 2002 in the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol’s Arizona
operations. However, it provides no detail on those detainees, much less evidence
that any of them had terrorist connections.

Similarly, the Border Patrol plans to submit a final EIS for completion
of a triple fence project in San Diego this summer. To date, two 14-mile parallel
fences have been built in San Diego, reaching well into the Pacific Ocean.
Single fencing exists for forty of the sixty miles between San Diego and Jacumba,
California, with gaps only in mountains areas where the terrain made construction
too difficult. The cost of construction of the double fence in San Diego has
already surpassed $40 million.

The explosion of proposed infrastructure, especially fencing, along the
southwest border explicitly seeks to control migrant flows to the United States.
All of the most recent proposals utilize DHS claims that migrants pose a dangerous
threat to our national security to justify new projects. With Congressional
members rushing to prove their anti-terrorist credentials, these projects
receive little scrutiny before approval, and the BCBP budget is rapidly swelling
to unprecedented proportions. In the Senate debate over the DHS appropriations
bill on July 22, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va), even presented an amendment to
provide an extra $100 million for BCBP, with specific reference to completing
the triple fence in San Diego in the name of anti-terrorism. The amendment
failed, as did numerous other amendments in the House and Senate that proposed
additional funding for BCBP during the July congressional debates. The Democratic
minority proposed many of these amendments knowing they would not pass, in
an effort to make the Republican majority look weak on terrorism.


The Case for Real Immigration

In August 2001, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) did a review of
the Southwest Border Strategy for Congress. It concluded that "INS has
not evaluated the strategy’s overall effects on illegal entry and has not
analyzed key performance data." It noted that the main effects of the
Southwest Border Strategy have been to shift illegal entries into the United
States from heavily trafficked cross points to more remote areas.

The GAO study was one of the first efforts to review the Southwest Border
Strategy for effectiveness and recommend new courses of action. Unfortunately,
with the terrorist attacks one month later, all attempts at review and revision
of border control policies disappeared. Instead, we have seen a redoubling
of efforts based on this strategy, as well as budget and staffing increases
that point to increased militarization.

At the same time, positive dialogue between the Bush administration and
Mexico’s Fox administration regarding immigration reform has fallen off the
table. Immigration reform would be the best course of action for a number
of reasons.

First, a comprehensive immigration reform package that both legalizes the
current illegal population in the U.S and provides legal means of entry for
future migrants would serve U.S. intelligence needs by providing data on millions
of invisible residents in the country. Second, comprehensive immigration reform
would lessen the burden on the Border Patrol by channeling the vast majority
of migrants through legal ports of entry. This would then free up the Border
Patrol to monitor the border for genuine terrorist activities. Third, reform
that provided for legal entry into the country would eliminate the coyote
industry by undercutting its income source, thus dispelling the administration’s
fear that coyote networks could be used by terrorists. Most importantly, immigration
reform would give migrants an option to enter the country that does not require
them to make the dangerous trek though the southwest desert, significantly
reducing the hundreds of migrant deaths each year.

There are moves underway in Congress to renew the debate around immigration
reform. In July of 2003, four Republicans proposed two different guest worker
programs to tackle this issue. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), along with Rep. Jim
Kolbe (R-AZ) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), proposed a plan to legalize current
migrants in the United States and set up a system to handle new migrants.
Similarly, Sen. Jon Cornyn (R-TX) proposed a less extensive guest worker bill.
While these bills are a first step in renewing debate in Congress on the issue
of immigration reform, they have yet to receive support from either the Bush
administration or from many members of Congress.

However, their introduction brings hope that, at least with regard to migrants,
the rhetoric of anti-terrorism will begin to wane and sensible solutions will
be debated. These debates should be encouraged, and alternative proposals
should be put forward. Above all, members of Congress need to hear from their
constituents that the status quo is unacceptable and that immigration reform
should be a national priority.

In the war on terror, migrants constitute an invisible casualty. The deaths
of hundreds of migrants go unnoticed each year by the U.S. public, as does
the fact that migrants wash our dishes, clean our hotels, construct our buildings,
care for our elderly, and perform countless other tasks that prop up our economy.
More migrants will probably die this year trying to enter the United States
than U.S. soldiers will die in the occupation of Iraq. The war on terror has
changed how we look at security within our own borders, but we must begin
to separate real threats from perceived ones and focus our energy on effective
solutions if we are to win this war.



  1. Testimony of Jayson
    P. Ahern, Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations, BCBP. House
    Committee on the Judiciary Hearing on “America’s Response to Terrorism:
    Use of Immigration-Related Tools to Fight Terrorism.” May 8, 2003.
  2. Justice Department
    Transcript. “Attorney General Ashcroft Announces Results of Operation
    Great Basin,” December 10, 2001.
  3. Testimony of Jayson
    P. Ahern, Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations, BCBP. House
    Committee on the Judiciary Hearing on “America’s Response to Terrorism:
    Use of Immigration-Related Tools to Fight Terrorism.” May 8, 2003.
  4. Testimony of Jayson
    P. Ahern, Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations, BCBP. House
    Committee on the Judiciary Hearing on “America’s Response to Terrorism:
    Use of Immigration-Related Tools to Fight Terrorism.” May 8, 2003.
  5. Testimony of Thomas
    Homan, Interim Associate Special Agent in Charge, San Antonio, Texas. Bureau
    of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. House Committee of the Judiciary Hearing
    on “Alien Smuggling.” June 24, 2003.
  6. Tayler, Letta. “Desperation
    Fuels Sophisticated Networks of Human Smugglers,” Christian Science
    . July 20, 2003.
  7. Tayler, Letta. “Desperation
    Fuels Sophisticated Networks of Human Smugglers,” Christian Science
    . July 20, 2003.
  8. Testimony of Richard
    M. Stana, Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues, BCBP. House Select
    Committee on Homeland Security Hearing on “Challenges Facing the Department
    of Homeland Security in Balancing its Border Security and Trade Facilitation
    Missions. June 16, 2003.
  9. Department of Homeland
    Security, Budget in Brief.
  10. Testimony of Jayson
    P. Ahern, Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations, BCBP. House
    Committee on the Judiciary Hearing on “America’s Response to Terrorism:
    Use of Immigration-Related Tools to Fight Terrorism.” May 8, 2003.
  11. Draft Programmatic
    Environmental Impact Statement for U.S. Border Patrol Activities within the
    Border Areas of the Tucson and Yuma Sectors, Arizona
    . Prepared by the
    U.S. Border Patrol and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. October 2002.
  12. Draft Programmatic
    Environmental Impact Statement for U.S. Border Patrol Activities within the
    Border Areas of the Tucson and Yuma Sectors, Arizona
    . Prepared by the
    U.S. Border Patrol and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. October 2002.
  13. Letter from William
    Fickel, Jr., Chief of Planning, Environmental, and Regulatory Division, U.S.
    Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Worth District. June 13, 2003.
  14. Draft Supplemental
    Environmental Assessment for Infrastructure within U.S. Border Patrol Naco-Douglas
    Corridor, Cochise County, Arizona
    . Prepared by the U.S. Border Patrol
    and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. May 2003.
  15. Draft Supplemental
    Environmental Assessment for Infrastructure within U.S. Border Patrol Naco-Douglas
    Corridor, Cochise County, Arizona
    . Prepared by the U.S. Border Patrol
    and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. May 2003.
  16. U.S. Congressional
    Record. Senate Debate on the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations
    Act 2004
    . U.S. Senate, July 22, 2003. page S9686.
  17. General Accounting
    Office Report to Congressional Committees. INS’ Southwest Border Strategy
    Resource and Impact Issues Remain After Seven Years
    . August 2001. Report