New Congress: Changes at the U.S. Borders

Item #1: US-VISIT, the program to keep better track of people coming in and out of the U.S. (more information here, here, here, and here), is running into all sorts of problems.

In a major blow to the Bush administration's efforts to secure borders, domestic security officials have for now given up on plans to develop a facial or fingerprint recognition system to determine whether a vast majority of foreign visitors leave the country, officials say.

[...]

But in recent days, officials at the Homeland Security Department have conceded that they lack the financing and technology to meet their deadline to have exit-monitoring systems at the 50 busiest land border crossings by next December. A vast majority of foreign visitors enter and exit by land from Mexico and Canada, and the policy shift means that officials will remain unable to track the departures.

A report released on Thursday by the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, restated those findings, reporting that the administration believes that it will take 5 to 10 years to develop technology that might allow for a cost-effective departure system.

Domestic security officials, who have allocated $1.7 billion since the 2003 fiscal year to track arrivals and departures, argue that creating the program with the existing technology would be prohibitively expensive.

They say it would require additional employees, new buildings and roads at border crossings, and would probably hamper the vital flow of commerce across those borders.

Congress ordered the creation of such a system in 1996.

In an interview last week, the assistant secretary for homeland security policy, Stewart A. Baker, estimated that an exit system at the land borders would cost "tens of billions of dollars" and said the department had concluded that such a program was not feasible, at least for the time being.

"It is a pretty daunting set of costs, both for the U.S. government and the economy," Mr. Stewart said. "Congress has said, 'We want you to do it.' We are not going to ignore what Congress has said. But the costs here are daunting.

"There are a lot of good ideas and things that would make the country safer. But when you have to sit down and compare all the good ideas people have developed against each other, with a limited budget, you have to make choices that are much harder."

I like the trade-off sentiment of that quote.

My guess is that the program will be completely killed by Congress in 2007. (More articles here and here, and an editorial here.)

Item #2: The new Congress is -- wisely, I should add -- unlikely to fund the 700-mile fence along the Mexican border.

Item #3: I hope they examine the Coast Guard's security failures and cost overruns.

Item #4: Note this paragraph from the last article:

During a drill in which officials pretended that a ferry had been hijacked by terrorists, the Coast Guard and the Federal Bureau of Investigation competed for the right to take charge, a contest that became so intense that the Coast Guard players manipulated the war game to cut the F.B.I. out, government auditors say.

Seems that there are still serious turf battles among government agencies involved with terrorism. It would be nice if Congress spent some time on this (actually important) problem.

Posted on January 2, 2007 at 12:26 PM • 28 Comments

Comments

BosoJanuary 2, 2007 1:26 PM

I've in the process of applying for a US visa for a business trip. The kind of hoops you have to jump through are ridiculous. "Do you have any training in Nuclear, biological or chemical weapons?" Because I'm an engineer, I have to furnisish a full CV, list every school I've ever been to, and all sorts of other stupid questions.

It's a shame the shoe bomber had a British passport, he wouldn't have had to do any of this.

Matt from CTJanuary 2, 2007 1:52 PM

Turf Battles?

In public safety?

Tell me it ain't so!

The really, really poor mark on this is that it was a drill. WHO was in charge should have been hammered out during a paper walk-thru during exercise planning.

That there ended up being a turf battle during the drill really points to the drill not being properly planned and carried out.

The purpose of a drill is to practice skills and put to use knowledge you already have...and to work out any minor kinks that couldn't be easily foreseen. When you have situations like this, it amounts to a giant waste of time and leaves bad feelings with the participants.

Even if you do not pre-assign individuals to positions they will fill, the roles and responsbilities that need to be filled should be known by all prior to the start of the drill -- you lay out the different roles that need to be filled in an incident management structure; and how roles will be transitioned from an individual Commander to several Commanders in a Unified Management Structure...and who should be the first-among-equals in the Unified Command (i.e. USCG until the vessel is secured and docked, at which point FBI becomes the top dog).

I've participated in numerous fire service drills and simulations; I can tell the difference between well planned, OK planned, and off-the-cuff drills in how smoothly they run and the overall value you take from them.

(BTW, I hate the term "Incident Commander" -- all someone can do is command people and how they use their tools, you don't command incidents...you can only manage them...no one ever suceded in saying, "Fire, you shall put yourself out!")

BenJanuary 2, 2007 1:57 PM

Boso, Bruce actually used the shortened name of the program. The full name is US-VISIT UR COUNTRY, U NOT-VISIT OURS. They're big into the long backronyms.

JarrodJanuary 2, 2007 2:05 PM

"Also, the new Congress is -- wisely, I should add -- unlikely to fund the 700-mile fence along the Mexican border."

The technological "fence" that is sought by the Bush administration is poorly thought out and simply a money grab for contractors, but the implementation of a traditional low-tech fence along the border combined with a significant increase in the number of Border Patrol agents stationed there would be a useful method of securing the border. Illegal immigration is a significant problem, and it needs to be dealt with in logical manners, including better patrolling and a harsh crackdown on employers who willingly look the other way.

DougJanuary 2, 2007 4:28 PM

Jarrod's right on the mark, with one exception. Bush wanted a technology fence, as well as the National Guard because they can be easily turned off or removed without public scrutiny. He's never been in favor of securing our borders (remember the Oath of Office George?) but rather supports amnesty for criminals.

A low-tech fence and barrier can't be removed without widespread press coverage, and thus once it's built, is less vulnerable to political games.

ruidhJanuary 2, 2007 4:28 PM

"Illegal immigration is a significant problem, and it needs to be dealt with in logical manners, including better patrolling and a harsh crackdown on employers who willingly look the other way."

But what if the "solution" won't solve the problem? The fence won't solve the problem. Period. The vast majority of illegal aliens enter the country legally and fail to exit when their visa is up. No fence will solve the biggest part of the problem. It's pure demagoguery -- let's do this and get lots of votes. It dosn;t matter if it solves the problem as long as it makes our opponents look like they are soft on illegals.

Matt from CTJanuary 2, 2007 5:47 PM

Actually...

As to illegal immigration can we have a better application of databases -- done right, cost effectively, etc?

1) If you're working under a false SSN, that should raise red flags seven ways to Sunday.

Of course, the Government has to give up the income and other taxes they collect knowing the ID thief can't get a refund or collect SS benefits.

2) The number of illegals who could be hidden by paying under the table is pretty limited -- those employers will often get tripped up by tax audits or an employee being injured that can bring scrutiny on them.

3) As I understand it, you can't ask for a copy of your credit report by SSN -- because the database is so screwed up with ID theft issues and mistakes they're embarrased on one hand, and afraid of revealing private information of someone else on the other.

That would be another great source to scan for anamolies.

Fence? Security Guards? Nah. Like Al Capone, you don't get the illegal aliens for being here, you get those who hire them for tax evasion.

SkippernJanuary 2, 2007 7:32 PM

Jarrod: "Illegal immigration is a significant problem, and it needs to be dealt with in logical manners, including better patrolling and a harsh crackdown on employers who willingly look the other way."

Matt has a few good points you should look at. The problem isn't the illegal immigrants that goes to the US, the problem is the people who are giving them a reason to stay (read employment and shelter). To solve the problem with illegal immigrants you need to take away their reason to go. Stop employing them, take away any form of social security, punish those who employ illegals, and those who shelter them. This means that many republicans must pay higher wages for their nannies and house maids, but no solutions comes without costs.

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RoyJanuary 2, 2007 8:05 PM

Here in Southern California, Spanish is the lingua franca (--bad pun--) of construction, groundskeeping, innkeeping, restauranting, health care, and agriculture. If new illegal immigrants were successfully kept out, and those already here were run out, the California economy would collapse.

Come on, folks, who's kidding who?

igfireJanuary 2, 2007 8:12 PM

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AndrewJanuary 2, 2007 8:35 PM

I remember when:

-- the Coast Guard was a military service that could rescue thousands of people a year, fight off terrorists and drug runners, maintain buoys, and as a sideline, deter Russian submarines -- with less money!
-- FEMA was competent and respected
-- "Homeland Security" was a synonym for the Russian "Committee for State Security" known to laypersons as KGB, and was not even imagined as a real name for a United States agency
-- TSA did not exist, and airlines pressured security screener wages to exactly minimum
-- the FBI played to its strengths, i.e. investigation and accounting, and did not pretend to be tactical
-- the Hostage Removal (excuse me, "Rescue") Team did not exist

I am not surprised that Coast Guard and FBI would fight over jurisdiction. I can't imagine how FBI would possibly win, or even why they would want to.

FBI agents are taught to swim at the FBI Academy. They are not taught to dock ferries or board four story floating apartment buildings with a diesel cogeneration plant welded to its butt.

AaronJanuary 3, 2007 8:09 AM

I've always wondered about that fence thing.

What good, exactly, is a fence going to do?

Unless you monitor it in some fashion, all you can hope to accomplish is to slow someone down for say, 5 minutes. And if you're monitoring that space, do you really need the fence?

It just boggles my mind that so many people are so thoroughly behind an idea that is so completely without merit.

JarrodJanuary 3, 2007 12:24 PM

New fences have already succeeded in diverting a significant amount of illegal immigrant traffic from the San Diego area to Arizona and New Mexico. This has been shown both in changes in patterns of arrests and anecdotally from law enforcement and locals in each region. Fences catch the low-hanging fruit, while more Border Patrol officers catch the middle stuff.

Matt has good points -- right now, the SSA knows about hundreds of thousands of fraudulent uses of SSNs for employment, but is barred by law from notifying the SSN holders or taking action against employers (which is a security issue on its own).

The demand is the reason that people cross the border -- the vast majority of them illegally entering, contrary to what ruidh believes, as evidenced by the million or so arrests each year which cover one-half to one-third of those attempting to cross. Employers want to pay less, so they look the other way. Start putting executives and HR personnel in prison for this, handing down fines, and seizing profits, and the demand will drop in a hurry.

Geoff LaneJanuary 3, 2007 12:59 PM

I've often wondered why the US and Mexico don't just open the border. For many years Irish/British nationals could freely travel between the two countries; had reciprocal voting rights and many other agreements that allowed unrestricted travel.

The world did not collapse. Ireland is not empty of people, nor full of the British.

The fact that there is illegal activity across the border doesn't suddenly go away if you build a fence no matter how tall or wide.

JohnJJanuary 3, 2007 2:28 PM

Jarrod, could the SSA bypass the notification law? I get letters from the SSA periodically (quarterly?) showing my anticipated benefits when I retire. They also list my annual contributions for so many years back. It wouldn't be that big of a stretch to show the source of the contributions for the last year. Basically, provide the SSN holder with a list of their employers (and other providers of income) for the past year. A citizen who sees a false entry could then challenge the data and start the process of finding the perpetrator of the identity fraud.

JarrodJanuary 3, 2007 2:39 PM

That's an interesting idea, JohnJ. They may be prevented from releasing certain data, but that might be a usable workaround.

Geoff: Ireland and Britain were much, much closer to economic parity, with the UK GDP per-capita at about 75% that of Ireland's (or at least that's how it is now). The GDP per capital for the US is four times what it is for Mexico, and unemployment/underemployment is a tremendous problem in Mexico. It doesn't take much of a wage to drive people north rather than deal with conditions back home.

jon liveseyJanuary 3, 2007 6:08 PM

Jarrod: the reciprocal relationship between the UK and Ireland dates back to the forties, when the economic disparity was huge. It was set up as part of the Republic Act of 1948 when Ireland left the Commonwealth. Ireland was then a very poor agricultural country, the Irish diaspora in the UK was about two million, and almost no UK citizens lived in Ireland. Far from being close to economic parity at the time, Ireland's GDP per head was about a half of that of the UK.

Infrequent FlyerJanuary 3, 2007 7:06 PM

@Geoff Lane

"For many years Irish/British nationals could freely travel between the two countries"

I'm unsure about the legal stance but in practice, I suspect this is still true. I recently flew from UK to Northen Ireland without a passport (credit card was enough). Getting from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland is trivial if you have a car.

Jarrod FratesJanuary 3, 2007 11:41 PM

@jon:

That's still twice the GDP per capita disparity between the US and Mexico. In addition, Ireland and the UK carried links in the form of the Commonwealth connection that Mexico and the US do not and never have shared.

There are economic and physical security issues with the border and illegal immigration. I'm not one of those that believes that terrorist are crossing the border everyday, but there are felons that do cross the border. Catching those trying to sneak out of the country is just as important as catching those trying to sneak back in. The economic insecurity that comes from supporting ever-larger number of unskilled legal residents who have trouble finding jobs impacts the overall future of the country. And the lack of jobs for the unskilled leads to higher crime rates, which is a cost on and a danger to everyone.

Durable AlloyJanuary 4, 2007 2:20 AM

Illegal immigration is largely an economic phenomenon, not a security issue. Acknowledging this fact is the first and necessary step to handle the problem in a rational manner.

jon liveseyJanuary 4, 2007 2:17 PM

"Illegal immigration is largely an economic phenomenon, not a security issue. "

Absolutely right. I live in Silicon Valley, and we couldn't function without illegals.

The chatter about who has what GNP is silly. The UK simply recognized back in the forties that you can't police a land border with your next-door neighbour if your own job market beckons. They didn't attempt to exclude Irish "illegals" but simply removed the concept of illegality. The result was that a couple of million Irish immigrants moved to the UK with zero formalties, and now that the Irish econommy has recovered, plenty of them are moving back. That's a good outcome, not a bad one.

Now, having said this is not security issue, I won't abuse Bruce's fine blog any further.

IanPJanuary 6, 2007 11:02 AM

Why not just offer Mexico statehood. No border, no problem.
yes you would initially have a huge influx of people moving north to gain in the wealth available in the US, but to counter that the money would also move south, as more and more Americans would want to live in the sun, set up businesses with cheap labour etc.
Over 10-15 years it would balance itself out.

Another benefit then would be that Mexico's southern border would be much easier to police.

JohnlJanuary 10, 2007 1:04 PM

IanP

What you suggest is in essence that we absorb the poverty of an entire nation that is many times poorer than we are. Our standard of living would drop like a stone. In 10 to 15 years the result would be a much bigger Mexico.

Durable AlloyJanuary 12, 2007 6:37 PM

Johnl:

It could also have the opposite effect: significantly raising the Mexican standard of living, while the US economy taking a very small impact, if one at all. Mexico is not Malawi.

BTW, I'm not advocating that Mexico joins the US. However, what Jon Livesey said makes perfect sense in this context.

AnonymousJanuary 17, 2007 12:19 PM

Illegal immigration is largely an economic phenomenon, not a security issue. Acknowledging this fact is the first and necessary step to handle the problem in a rational manner.

Posted by: Durable Alloy at January 4, 2007 02:20 AM


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"Illegal immigration is largely an economic phenomenon, not a security issue. "

Absolutely right. I live in Silicon Valley, and we couldn't function without illegals.

The chatter about who has what GNP is silly. The UK simply recognized back in the forties that you can't police a land border with your next-door neighbour if your own job market beckons. They didn't attempt to exclude Irish "illegals" but simply removed the concept of illegality. The result was that a couple of million Irish immigrants moved to the UK with zero formalties, and now that the Irish econommy has recovered, plenty of them are moving back. That's a good outcome, not a bad one.

Now, having said this is not security issue, I won't abuse Bruce's fine blog any further.

Posted by: jon livesey at January 4, 2007 02:17 PM

AnnaMarch 13, 2007 10:08 AM

IanP isn't that far off in one sense. Has anyone noticed that in a certain place the fence is actually ON Mexican territory? The soil was "inadequate" for the foundations on the US side so they simply "moved it over" a few meters.

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