Better, Faster, and Cheaper Border Security

Report Homeland Security

Better, Faster, and Cheaper Border Security

September 6, 2006 17 min read Download Report

Authors: Brian Walsh, David Muhlhausen, James Carafano, David Gentilli and Laura Keith

Congress and the Administration should pursue a strategy that quickly enhances resources at the border within two years. The Senate and House plans to add border guards and build fences are inadequate.

Instead, a comprehensive strategy should examine other options such as a mix of federal, state, and local assets; volunteers operating under State Defense Forces; the National Guard; and private contractors. In particular, private contractors could play an important role in recruiting and training Border Patrol agents and providing personnel to secure the border. To contract out certain border security func­tions successfully, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should apply the lessons learned from other large-scale contracting projects. All in all, a strategy that examines and uses these multiple means would strengthen the integrity and security of America's borders.

The Need to Revise Border Strategy

A strategy to gain operational control of the U.S. southern border should focus on building up the means to limit illegal crossings between the land points of entry, interdict smuggling by air and sea, discourage unlawful presence inside the country, and provide adequate legal alternatives to support south- north migration flows. To be effective, the strategy should be implemented within two years and remain in place for at least five years.

The Strategy Problem. Strategy consists of the ways, means, and ends employed to achieve national objec­tives. Strategies are dynamic, competitive processes of action and counteraction between thinking adver­saries. The current strategy and the proposed approaches to border security in the House and Senate measures are static and deeply flawed.

U.S. border strategy represents a "graduated response," which involves gradually adding re­sources until the problem is solved. This approach is usually adopted when it is unclear how much effort is required to achieve success. Such strategies fail against a determined competitor because the threat is allowed the time and resourcefulness to adapt. For example, as illegal border crossings increased over the past decade, manpower was doubled and spending tripled, yet the number of people unlawfully present in the United States skyrocketed.

Additionally, many historical examples demon­strate that such strategies usually fail against a determined, resourceful competitor that possesses adequate resources. In Vietnam, the United States employed a flawed strategy referred to as "gradu­ated pressure." The guiding idea was that incre­mentally increasing levels of military force would ultimately push the North Vietnamese to some abstract breaking point, achieving victory for the United States and South Vietnam. This strategy relied on faulty assumptions about the enemy's psy­chology and, most of all, offered no real solutions about how to defeat the Communists other than essentially throwing more troops at the problem.

U.S. border operations are likely to fail regard­less of what security (e.g., manpower and fences) is added because in the months and years required to implement new means of security, the hundreds of thousands seeking to enter the United States will find ways to circumvent these measures. Indeed, the Senate and House bills, both of which mandate specific levels of hiring for border agents and man­datory construction of miles of border fences, may actually exacerbate the problem. Agents and fences may well consume the lion's share of the federal budget for border security, leaving inadequate resources for other critical tasks such as interior enforcement, detention, and removal.

The Right Strategy. Rather than seeking to determine how much has to be done to secure the border, an alternative and more effective strategy would focus on what can be done to change the predominance of illegal south-north migration from illegal to legal. It would seek to disrupt the current illegal migration patterns quickly and dra­matically and to encourage legal migration as an alternative. This strategy should have three compo­nents: dominant and persistent enforcement, rapid and robust deployment, and legal alternatives for south-north migration.

Dominant and Persistent Enforcement. This can be achieved only by obtaining the right mix of land, air, sea, and interior enforcement assets and policies.

  • Land. Gaining operational control of U.S. land borders will require more than security between the points of entry. Rather than focus­ing on specific assets (e.g., guards and fences), attention should be paid to building integrated Web capabilities that provide intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance, and interdiction. This is often called a "system of systems."

  • Sea and air. More attention should be paid to the maritime and air approaches to U.S. terri­tory. As land borders become more secure, drug smugglers and human traffickers will quickly look to air and sea options. Thus, air and mar­itime security must be enhanced in conjunction with land security. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) air asset modern­ization should be synchronized with the Secure Border Initiative.

  • Interior enforcement. Interior enforcement is an essential component of border security because it can effectively deter further illegal border crossings. In addition, about half of the unlaw­fully present population in the United States entered the country through legitimate ports of entry, either by using fraudulent documents or with legitimate visas that they then overstayed. Thus, border security alone will not address the undocumented population already in the coun­try. Interior enforcement should include ending "catch and release" for immigration violations, workplace enforcement, and no amnesty for individuals unlawfully present in the United States. Those illegally present must return to places of origin to apply for legal entry into the United States.

  • Rapid and Robust Deployment. Speed is an essen­tial element of an effective border strategy. A much larger capacity to implement border and interior enforcement must be established quickly. Imple­menting security over 18 months to two years and maintaining that level of security for five years will significantly disrupt illegal migration patterns because it will span multiple growing seasons, tourist periods, and business cycles, undercutting the ability of companies to conduct business by relying on an illegal workforce.

Relying on a buildup of DHS assets will take too long. Heavy reliance on military assets is costly and inefficient and detracts from the military's ability to perform its other essential missions. An alternative to rapidly building up border assets is to employ a combination of resources.

  • Contractors. Contracted workers should be able to perform virtually any border security mis­sion, including law enforcement functions. This makes particular sense if workforce increases will be temporary.

  • State and local law enforcement. State and local law enforcement could cooperate under Sec­tion 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which provides a mechanism for employ­ing trained and experienced state and local law enforcement personnel to support enforcement of federal immigration law.

  • Volunteers and state defense forces. Volunteer groups could perform functions to augment law enforcement. One cost-effective option might be to encourage border security volun­teer groups as part of state defense forces. These groups might also have utility in other home­land security tasks including disaster response.

  • National Guard. A cursory study of the costs of mobilizing and deploying National Guard troops in either a Title 10 or a Title 32 status suggests that military manpower is not a cost-effective solution to fulfilling long-term (three or more years) manpower needs for border security. Military manpower does have utility as a stopgap or supplementary measure. Since law enforcement manpower is the most expensive and difficult component of border security manpower to deploy, it makes sense to use the National Guard in this role where appropriate.

  • Human capital improvements in Border Patrol re­cruiting. A significant portion of the time and cost of recruiting Border Patrol officers is con­sumed by the high percentage of candidates who fail background investigations, drug tests, lan­guage training, and training courses. One means to expand the Border Patrol more efficiently is to improve the screening and selection process.

In the long term, this solution should prove both effective and cost-efficient. Once migration pat­terns shifted from illegal to legal means, less robust security would be required on the border. Since the federal government would have avoided investing in security measures with high fixed costs (i.e., an excessively large federal workforce for border secu­rity), it could quickly lower costs by reducing con­tractor support.

Legal Alternatives for Migration. Enhancing bor­der security makes no sense without establishing alternative legal patterns of migration that bolster the U.S. economy, respect the rule of law, and strengthen American civil society. A strategy of "border first" should not be "border only." "Border only" strategies increase the incentive for smugglers to find alternative ways to circumvent security.

Legal alternatives that do not encourage illegal entry and unlawful presence are essential to border security. Such measures should include appropriate security, criminal, and health screening measures before individuals enter the United States and should meet the legitimate needs of U.S. employers in a timely manner.

Adding More Border Patrol Agents

Recommendations to increase the number of Border Patrol agents as a major component of bor­der security raise several issues:

  1. Hiring thousands of new Border Patrol agents may not reduce illegal immigration.

  2. Increasing the number of Border Patrol agents will pose significant operational challenges.

  3. Privatization would likely reduce the cost of hiring these new Border Patrol agents.

Effectiveness. In spite of vast policy differences in their approaches to immigration reform, the House and Senate immigration reform bills share a common strategy of increasing border security by hiring thousands of Border Patrol agents in the coming years.

Regrettably, this proposed dramatic expansion of the Border Patrol may not have the desired effect. A review of the social science literature on the effect of border enforcement on illegal immigration shows mixed results.[1] Some studies find no effect, while others indicate a positive or negative relationship between border enforcement and illegal immigration.

Additionally, the literature indicates that increased border enforcement appears to slow the flow of il­legal immigrants leaving the United States. Thus, immigration law enforcement that is overly reliant on border enforcement may actually increase the number of illegal aliens in the United States.

Three factors significantly undermine the effec­tiveness of the Border Patrol:

  1. Income disparity. The income disparity between the United States and Mexico and other Latin American countries means that illegal aliens seeking a better life have a strong incentive to cross the border.

  2. Lack of sanctions. While increasing the number of Border Patrol agents will likely increase the number of apprehensions, these efforts proba­bly do little to deter illegal immigration if those who are caught are not sanctioned for illegally entering the United States. Virtually no sanc­tions, such as fines and detention, are imposed on apprehended illegal immigrants by the fed­eral government. Once apprehended, nearly all detained illegal immigrants sign a voluntary departure form and are returned to Mexico. Of the 1.6 million people who were apprehended in 1998, just over 1 percent were prosecuted.[2] Because illegal immigrants incur little or no cost for being apprehended by the Border Patrol, research suggests that illegal immigrants will make as many trips as necessary to cross the border successfully.[3]

  3. Competing objectives. The competing objectives of enforcing immigration law and meeting labor demands by allowing illegal border cross­ings impair the Border Patrol's potential effec­tiveness. While the agency's public mission is to guard the border, research indicates that the agency appears to relax enforcement when the demand for illegal immigrant workers is high.[4]

Deterring crime is likely to depend more on deploying officers when and where serious crime is concentrated and most likely to occur. Thus, pro­viding actual sanctions for illegally crossing the border and giving the Border Patrol a clear and con­sistent mission may be more important to securing the border than dramatically expanding the num­ber of agents on the border would be.

Operational Challenges. The difficulties with quickly increasing the number of Border Patrol agents by 50 percent are numerous. Aside from its questionable effectiveness, such a policy will need to overcome many operational hurdles to meet its goal.

Attrition. With an attrition rate of about 20 per­cent at the training academy, the CBP will need nearly 8,000 trainees to graduate the required 6,000 new agents. Even before arriving at the acad­emy, applicants go through a long, circuitous pro­cess that includes a medical exam, a drug test, a thorough background investigation, and a physical fitness test with standards comparable to those of the military. For every 30 applications received, one applicant makes it through the entire screening process and completes training.[5] This suggests that meeting the President's goal would require about 180,000 applications in the next two years.

Finding Qualified Applicants. Working as a Border Patrol agent is difficult and dangerous. Agents work outdoors in rough terrain and in extraordinarily unpleasant weather, mostly along the southwestern border. For many of them, this will mean moving to small border towns far away from their families.

Furthermore, CBP recruits are asked to endure hardships unique to the agency for lower pay than most other federal law enforcement organizations offer. While the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) starts new agents at either the GS-7 or GS-9 pay grade and the Federal Bureau of Investigation starts new agents at the GS-10 pay grade,[6] CBP agents start at either the GS-5 or GS-7 pay grade, depending on their qualifications.[7] Yet CBP require­ments are just as demanding as those for other agen­cies and in some cases even more so since all new Border Patrol agents must pass Spanish classes at the academy. Attracting a surfeit of qualified candidates will require increasing the pay and benefits.

Recruiting Efforts. Recruiting and screening 180,000 new applicants will require a massive effort by the CBP's recruiting apparatus, especially since the agency is competing with other federal law enforcement organizations that offer better pay and are perceived by the public to offer greater prestige and excitement.

Therefore, CBP recruiting efforts will need to focus not only on getting the numbers, but also on improving the agency's public image and prestige. One way to do this would be to launch an advertis­ing campaign emphasizing that the CBP is a front­line, down-in-the-trenches agency that is fighting on perhaps the most important front in this new type of war. To improve public perception, the CBP will need to increase its current team of 50 dedi­cated recruiters nationwide.

Avoiding a Bottleneck. Once the CBP puts prac­tices in place to accomplish the recruiting goal and screen enough qualified candidates, it will need to avoid a bottleneck at the academy. The academy will need not only additional classrooms and living space, but also more firing ranges, physical fitness facilities, and training areas for simulations and exercises, along with additional staff and instruc­tors. The Administration's proposal would increase the training rate from 411 new agents per year to 3,000 per year over the next two years. The train­ing academy in Artesia, New Mexico, does not have the capacity to handle this increase.

Cost. If Congress continues to insist on adding thousands of new Border Patrol agents, it should consider policies that will make the hiring, train­ing, and deploying of new agents more cost-effec­tive. In general, policymakers should consider using private contractors to recruit Border Patrol agents and to deploy security personnel on the border.

Border Patrol Recruiting. The hiring of thousands of new Border Patrol agents means that the agency will have to expand and improve its recruiting pro­cess. The Border Patrol should model its recruiting efforts on the U.S. armed services, which must attract tens of thousands of new recruits each year. Contracting with private recruiting firms also might help the Border Patrol to reach its hiring goals. Specifically, the Border Patrol should:

  • Target the right audience. CBP recruiting efforts should advertise in official service publications like the Army Times and should participate in career fairs aimed at recruiting military person­nel who are leaving the service. Soldiers who are leaving active duty but still crave challeng­ing work would be a perfect fit. Implementing these solutions will require increasing the advertising budget. The armed forces have been very successful at using ads to recruit. The FBI also does an outstanding job of creating an image for itself. To reach its recruiting goals, the CBP will need more money for advertising so that it can conduct a more successful out­reach campaign.

  • Increase pay and benefits. The CBP has difficulty competing with other federal law enforce­ment agencies because they pay better. Pay should be raised to comparable levels both to foster competitive recruiting and to help the CBP meet its goals.

  • Engage the private sector in recruiting. The CBP's 50 full-time recruiters will be overwhelmed. Rather than augmenting the number of full-time recruiters by removing more agents from the border, the CBP should hire private con­tractors to strengthen recruiting efforts. Increasing its recruitment team will allow the CBP to target and recruit highly qualified can­didates more effectively.

Private Security Firms. The Border Patrol should consider hiring private security firms to provide well-trained security personnel to help guard the nation's borders. For fiscal year 2006, the Depart­ment of Homeland Security estimates that the cost to hire, train, and equip one Border Patrol Agent is about $180,000, with an additional $9,000 in tuition charged by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.[8] Thus, the total cost of a new Bor­der Patrol agent is around $189,000. Privatizing this process should lower costs.

Private firms may offer short-term and long-term solutions that are more cost-effective. In general, the social science literature on the privatization of government services from waste management to corrections indicates that the private sector can deliver quality services more cheaply than the pub­lic sector can.[9] Some may say that the private sector cannot be trusted with securing the border. Yet the private sector is trusted to provide criminal justice services. For example, private contractors have a long history of managing adult and juvenile correc­tional facilities. A review of the literature on prison privatization by the Reason Public Policy Institute suggests that private prisons cost 11 percent to 14 percent less than state-run prisons.[10]

In the short term, private security firms can fill in the gaps on the border while the Border Patrol works to meet the hiring thresholds mandated by Congress. If private security firms can deploy border agents in a more cost-effective manner, then Congress should consider using private bor­der agents as a long-term solution to enhancing border security.

Training Capacity. Congress should consider pro­viding the Border Patrol with additional means to train new agents. Adding thousands of new agents in a few years as mandated by both the House and Senate bills may not be feasible without expanding the training capacity of the Border Patrol Academy and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Allowing the Border Patrol to develop partnerships with law enforcement academies operated by private firms could lower training costs significantly. The CBP could also meet the Border Patrol increase by:

  • Building capacity. Once recruiting efforts accel­erate toward their goal of bringing in 6,000 new agents in the next two years, there must be a plan to ensure that the flood of new agents does not overwhelm the training facility in New Mexico. The obvious answer to increasing capacity at the academy is to spend money to expand the facilities, which the agency is already doing. To save money and time, the agency should use excess capacity at nearby colleges and universities to increase capacity in the short term.

    The academy could also set up temporary facilities. For example, when the Army has needed to quickly expand its ability to train new recruits, it has used "expandables" or trailer parks that can be quickly established to house several hundred recruits. The CBP will need to consider building temporary range facilities and innovative solutions like training in shifts so that limited resources like firing ranges can be used around the clock.

  • Rethinking the academy standards. The academy's 20 percent attrition rate is intolerably high, especially when compared to U.S. Army basic training. New Army recruits wash out of basic at a rate of 10 percent to 12 percent. Lowering the attrition rate at the academy would help to meet the proposed increase. Easing the Spanish language requirement is one way to do this. Implementing the language requirement in a way that allows applicants who pass all other aspects of training a second chance to pass the language proficiency tests might lower the attrition rate while preserving the impor­tant requirement that Border Patrol agents speak Spanish. Additionally, including pre­paratory training courses in military recruit­ment has been shown to reduce the rate of attrition. Border Patrol training could imple­ment such a model.

State and Local Participation Under Section 287(g)

Section 287(g) of the Immigration and National­ity Act (INA) could serve as basis for state and local law enforcement to cooperate effectively with fed­eral authorities in rapidly building up capacity to gain operational control of U.S. borders. This sec­tion gives local and state governments the authority to investigate, detain, arrest, and deport illegal immigrants on civil and criminal grounds under federal immigration law.

State and Local Engagement. Section 287(g) was added to the INA in 1996 to enhance Immigra­tion and Customs Enforcement. In many cases, local authorities along the border are often the first to witness immigration violations and in the best position to stop illegal immigrants who are trying to enter the United States. Under Section 287(g), states could secure adequate training for state and local law enforcement officers, who would then be authorized to deal with immigration offenders and enforce the INA. The month-long training focuses on immigration law, civil rights, racial profiling issues, and identifying immigration violators.

Using Section 287(g) would strengthen cooper­ation among federal, state, and local law enforce­ment agencies while still adhering to constitutional principles of federalism, protecting the rights of U.S. citizens, and combating threats to the nation. Currently, only Alabama, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and California have established Section 287(g) programs, but none of them are used for border control.

Integrating with Federal Operations. The best way to integrate Section 287(g) programs into bor­der control is to expand the DHS Border Enforce­ment Security Task Forces (BEST), which act as fusion centers for federal, state, tribal, local law enforcement, and intelligence entities in identify­ing and combating emerging and existing threats. Other effective models of this approach include Project Seahawk at the port of Charleston, the Joint Interagency Task Force in Key West, the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Forces, and Canada's Integrated Border Enforcement teams. The DHS should rap­idly expand the task force concept to organize operations and use Section 287(g) as the basis for integrating state and local law enforcement.

Congress should authorize states and cities to use homeland security grants for participation in Section 287(g) programs. It should also require the DHS to:

  1. Appoint a national spokesperson (a respected and prominent former state or local govern­ment or law enforcement official) to promote the program;

  2. Draft a strategy for implementing Section 287(g) nationwide; and

  3. Create a national center to share lessons learned and to teach best practices.

Volunteer Groups and State Defense Forces

The willingness of Americans to volunteer reflects a healthy civil society. Volunteer groups could perform many tasks that would enhance the nation's capacity to control its borders. As with all volunteer associations that interface with govern­ment agencies, there are three minimum require­ments to making operations safe and effective: accreditation, standards, and practical employment concepts that are consistent with volunteer service.


Brian Walsh
Brian Walsh

Former Senior Legal Research Fellow

David Muhlhausen
David Muhlhausen

Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis

James Carafano
James Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

David Gentilli

Director, Center for Legal & Judicial Studies

Laura Keith