During the presidential campaign, the promised southern border wall was framed as a panacea for border security, illegal immigration, job competition with illegal workers, drug and human trafficking—most every problem that owes to a porous border. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly’s view is more nuanced. He told Fox News:
“Any discussion about the protection of our southwest border involves discussion of physical barriers but also of technological sensors…It’s got to be backed up by great men and women who are going to make sure that the wall is intact.”
The second half of that statement is particularly important, in part because, for years, the U.S. Border Patrol has not received the support they need to effectively secure the border. Even on the most aggressive construction timeline, the border wall is still a distant aspiration. Here are five steps Kelly can take immediately to amplify the Border Patrol’s efforts.
- Border Patrol agents need the tools to do their job, including basic things like weaponry. In 2014, Border Patrol rifles were tested by the Office of Training and Development, and finding that as many as 40% of the M4 carbine rifles had the potential to malfunction, those weapons were removed from field offices. The problem is that they have not been replaced. In some stations, 400 agents are sharing just 100 rifles.
Rifles that are not “zeroed” to each Border Patrol agent mean they are heading into the field with a weapon that might not shoot straight. Border Patrol also needs more and better all-terrain vehicles, in particular mobile surveillance vehicles that can be moved to where the threat goes. And agents need handheld surveillance drones to extend their visibility along thousands of miles of border. The general public can buy cheap drones at their local retailer. Why doesn’t the Border Patrol have access to this new technology? The drug cartels do.
- Agents need to be able to communicate in the field. Border Patrol agents face vast stretches of desolate land along the border where communication with colleagues and superiors is impossible. I understand why cell carriers refuse to build towers in areas where there are no subscribers, but in this case, that is where they are needed most. Without reliable communications, agents cannot receive images from manned and unmanned vehicles, they cannot call for support, and they are challenged to know whether they are about to encounter a group of fellow law enforcement officers, unarmed immigrants or a cartel “rip crew” ready to open fire.
There are options the secretary can consider. In December 2015, the U.S. Border Patrol, the Chochise Country Sheriff’s Office and a group of private sector stakeholders ran a Proof of Concept test for a communications system dubbed the Field Information Support Tool (FIST) that was sponsored by the NOVA Corporation, a subsidiary of the Dine Development Corporation, a Navajo Nation-owned company, which worked well. Gen. Kelly might also look at laying fiber optic cable along the border to provide continuous wireless communication.
- Entry-Exit tracking needs to be implemented. President Trump’s Executive Order 13769 directs DHS to complete a biometric entry-exit tracking system. The core reason this has not been implemented is that we do not have an efficient system for tracking individuals exiting across the southern border. Primary challenges include: the volume of people crossing the border; the limited technology available; the fact that many purse holders and policy writers in Washington do not understand the priorities of those living and working in border states; and the absence of collaboration between Mexico’s immigration system and the United States. The biggest delays lie in the persistent search for the perfect solution that may not exist, instead of relying on what is tried and proven, such as fingerprint scanning. We do not need to delay; in fact, we need to implement what we have available now while continuing to look at other possible solutions. Kelly needs to work with Customs and Border Protection to identify how exit tracking can be realistically and rapidly implemented.
- Border Patrol morale needs improvement. DHS ranks last in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which measures morale amongst federal agencies. Early last year, former National Deputy Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol Ron Colburn told me, “I see it in the eyes and hear it in the voices of the men and women of the Border Patrol. They understand the mission and they want to accomplish it, but they feel like they have been abandoned.”
The Border Patrol is among the most unsung professions in law enforcement. Gen. Kelly can be an advocate, give agents the recognition and support they need, and improve morale by setting an example, publically championing the important, often dangerous work agents do every day. Ensuring agents have the tools, technology and communications ability they need to do their job would go a long way. And most importantly, he needs to ensure there is no confusion or misinterpretation of their mission to enforce laws that are on the books.
- Work with stakeholders on both sides of the border. Day to day, Border Patrol works with a range of organizations and individuals with a vested interest in a more secure and efficient border. Kelly should support and expand this collaboration, reaching out to the nonprofits, businesses and citizens eager to support the Border Patrol’s mission. These stakeholders need willing partners on the border and in Washington. There are also leaders in Mexico showing a real willingness to work with the United States to address drug and human trafficking, cartel violence, and the economic benefits from the safe, efficient movement of people and goods across the border. Kelly and his leadership must support Border Patrol in engaging them as well.
Our strongest asset on the border are the men and women guarding it every day. It’s time we start acting like it.
Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido