‘America First’ Leaves the Border Behind

Border security is a concept that, among Americans, usually conjures up images of dusty, desert expanses in our southwest.  Maybe it includes a cactus or a dark-green clad Border Patrolman on horseback or standing near his truck, seemingly at the ready to catch the next illegal immigrant, drug mule or terrorist crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.  This is the picture, the narrative, that Donald Trump, many congressional Republicans and their boosters try to imprint on the casual news consumer.  In dumbing down border security to try and make it into a digestible campaign topic they rob it of its complexity and fall short of describing the true nature of our vulnerabilities and therefore what steps must be taken to not only secure our border (to use their parlance) but also secure the free flow of goods and people into and out of America.

True border security is not a one-way street and the American Southwest is just one small lane that can be addressed.  To focus efforts solely on four states (Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas) is both shortsighted and precarious.  In the short run it can make political sense for Republicans to use this issue to try and convince people that 1) there is a major problem with border security in those states and 2) the way to solve it is through stopping immigration of people who once they get here and earn citizenship disagree with their political philosophies.  First of all, most of the people who come to the United States enter through airports and not via the Southwest land border crossings.  Second, if Republicans truly are interested in securing our borders they need to broaden their aperture and view border security not just as a mechanism to keep people out, but as a tool to facilitate lawful trade and travel.

Democrats should stop having this policy argument on Republican’s terms and make an effort to reframe the discussion.  Yes, there are problems along the Southwest border that should be fixed but borders aren’t just the physical lines between our countries anymore.  When politicians of either party who truly care about comprehensive homeland security talk about borders they should include airports and other land border crossings.  They should talk about the opportunities that border control poses for our country in terms of economic prosperity and the competitiveness of the American worker.  There is a positive, forward-looking argument to be made that doesn’t seek to just scare voters and vilify certain groups of people, but rather empowers the best parts of our creative and economic engines. 

International Complexities

Like a coin, there are two sides to every border.  Our border security relies on the capabilities of our foreign partners.  For America, this certainly applies to our land borders with Canada and Mexico but it does not and cannot stop there.  For example, the borders of any country with an airport serving as a last point of departure to the United States presents a risk for policy makers if that country doesn’t take border security seriously.  This is all the more so for countries that are members of the Visa Waiver Program.  While some may read those last few sentences and see them as supportive of President Trump’s travel ban, it should rather be read as a glaring flaw in President Trump’s America First foreign policy.  As much as America needs to ensure its own land borders are secure, when our partners don’t take border security seriously the whole system suffers from the vulnerability.

Kenya is an instructive example of the need for the U.S. to support better border security across the globe.  As al-Shabbab and their partners seemingly took an eraser to a section of border between Kenya and Somalia, American diplomats and law enforcement agents deployed to both countries saw first-hand as cash, terrorists, and weapons flowed easily between the two countries.

This lack of border security in Kenya is likely one of the contributing factors to the U.S. barring direct flights between Kenya and any airports in the United States until just last month.  And while there may be security benefits of limiting direct flights between Jomo Kenyatta Airport and JFK in New York, if the U.S. could measurably improve border security in Kenya (in addition to other important factors) there are countless economic, tourism, and trade factors that could improve.  These border security improvements include everything from decreasing corruption in the ranks of border enforcement and customs agents to ensuring perimeter security around the airport itself.  An America First policy misses the opportunity and leaves these partners’ borders unsecured allowing terrorists or criminal groups to create safe havens for themselves.  Further, barring broad groups of people, by nationality for example, is akin to using a cleaver – an unjust and unfair one – when a scalpel will do.  An intelligent, risk-based approach to screening travelers takes advantage of the assistance we provide to partners to encourage travel and trade and reduce the movement of contraband and criminals.

How to Secure Our Border

The White House and the Departments of State, Homeland Security and Justice in addition to the Congress can take a number of steps to both sure up our own border security and help that of our allies, friends and strategic partners.  In terms of better securing the movement of goods and people, the President should empower DHS and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to enter into more trusted traveler and trader agreements.  Reciprocal programs like Global Entry and SENTRI help facilitate the flow of low risk travelers and provide CBP with information about potentially riskier travelers.  Similarly, programs like CBP’s Customs-Trade Partnership Against Counter Terrorism (C-TPAT) help simultaneously protect the supply chain from mala fide actors and ensure a regular flow of goods across borders.   

Instead of retreating into a fortress, er, wall-mentality, DHS should continue to push the border out by engaging with international partners.  ICE, TSA and CBP, along with the Justice Department’s operational arms and DHS’s cyber professionals should expand their presence in partner nations to broaden and deepen our relationships and strengthen physical and digital borders.  Ideally, these relationships would focus both on operational cooperation with countries that are more advanced and training for other partners who need to leverage our best practices and technological advancements.  Further, when capacity building of this nature comes from American experts there is a level of confidence that the partners are learning best practices for techniques and respect for the rule of law, human rights, and democratic principles – both of which are important to ensuring security on both sides of our borders.

Congress also has a role to play here.  They should provide federal Law Enforcement agencies with more funding and the authorization to expand their footprints overseas.  Building “cop-to-cop” relationships is invaluable from both a training and investigative point of view.  Further, to the point of having a better idea of who is coming to the United States, Congress should authorize and provide funding for more Visa Security Program posts.  These investigators are much needed amplifier  for consular officers who are deployed to higher risk areas as they investigate the travel-worthiness of visa applicants.

Lastly, the various federal agencies that deal with U.S. national security should do a better job recognizing Border Security as a foreign policy priority in their interagency deliberations.  Much has been made of the current administration’s politicization of the National Security Council through the placement of political strategist Steve Bannon as a standing member of the Principal’s Committee.  An unseen, but critical amount of foreign policy is developed by mid-level staff on the NSC and their counterparts in the agencies.  Far too often those discussions take place without important subject matter experts in areas like border or transportation security because they are not typically thought of as “Asia experts” or “Middle East experts” that are usually summoned for their input in developing options for agency heads or the President to consider. A broader array of input will lead to a richer set of options in most instances.

Border security is a team sport and a deep bench of capable partners is essential to keeping America safe.  Rather than pursuing a misguided America First foreign policy, President Trump, Secretaries Tillerson and Kelly and Attorney General Sessions ought to work with Congress to smartly improve the security of all parts of our border and the border security capabilities of our friends and allies.

Image: Jeff Sullivan/Getty

 

About the Author(s)

Matthew Wein

Former Policy Advisor to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Assistant Secretary of Policy, Former Advisor to the DHS Director of Operations Coordination on Counterterrorism and Intelligence Issues