December 14, 2001

Border Security in the Wake of September 11th

by Jason Ackleson, PhD
Department of Government
New Mexico State University

The events of September 11th portend both short and potentially far-reaching implications for U.S. frontiers with Canada and Mexico. This brief and preliminary review will look at some of the main issues and changes emerging in U.S. border security and immigration policy in the wake of the terrorist attacks on America.

Border Security Before September 11th

It is important to preface this discussion with a short synopsis of U.S. border control policy prior to the attacks on New York and Washington. Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. Border Patrol has increasingly been involved in security efforts, especially along the southern boundary. Modeling their frontier-wide efforts on "Operation Hold the Line"-a restrictive, "line-watch" strategy imposed along the U.S.-Mexico boundary in El Paso, Texas in 1993-the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began intensive surveillance designed to deter unauthorized migrant crossings. These initiatives utilized high-technology, such as electronic monitoring devices, and deployed agents to monitor the border in new ways.

From 1993 to 2000, for example, the Border Patrol more than doubled from 4,000 to 9,000 agents while the overall INS budget increased from $1.5 billion to over $5 billion.

Much of this was growth was authorized by the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Imbedded in this act was an often unnoticed provision called Section 110, which required, within a two year period, the registration of all entrants into the United States through the establishment of a high-tech, `secure' entry and exit system at border crossings, especially those on the northern frontier.

When considering border security prior to the September 11th attacks, three primary points emerge: first, the U.S. focused on reducing crossings by undocumented migrants-not necessarily potential terrorists-through new forms of boundary surveillance. Second, the political and social representation of U.S. borderlands under the new measures is to some extent one of image. Third, economic pressures for unencumbered free trade trumped the poorly conceived terrorism measures that did exist, specifically Section 110 of the 1996 Immigration Act.

The Immediate U.S. Policy Response to Attacks

One main aspect of the policy response to terrorism is directed to the border and American immigration policy. Most of the terrorists who committed the attack entered on tourist or student visas legally and then violated the conditions of their admittance.

Border and immigration policy changed rapidly after the attacks in at least four ways:

1. Intensified Border Security and Reduced Cross-Border Flows

A vastly increased federal presence on U.S. boundaries is one of the most visible signs of the changes. U.S. Border Patrol and Customs agents have been at "Level 1" alert since the attacks, checking every car and person entering the country.

National Guard units are currently working to supplement regular INS and Treasury officials at border crossings. However, the potential for additional military deployment-especially should another attack occur-is latent: on September 25th, two weeks after the attacks, the U.S. House passed an amendment to the defense authorization bill calling for the use of military personnel to help patrol both borders with Mexico and Canada. Representative James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio), the sponsor, told his colleagues: "How do you defend your home if your front and back doors are unlocked? What do we stand for if we can't secure our borders? How many more Americans will die?" The issue has yet to be resolved in conference committee meetings with the Senate.

Residents of the northern and southern borderlands in particular are feeling the direct affects of these U.S. actions. Because of the intense scrutiny, long backups of up to several hours exist at many border crossing points. This has crippled trade and commerce, depressing local border economies; retail sales in El Paso, for example, are off in some cases 50%. This has prompted several local officials to appeal for emergency economic relief from Congress.

In addition, migrant flows across the frontier are down. The Border Patrol's 43,013 arrests of people crossing illegally from Mexico in October were 54 percent below last year's level.

2. Crackdown on Student Visas and Proposals for Tracking Immigrants

There are several proposals before Congress to establish a six-month moratorium on student visas while immigration authorities and educational institutions establish mechanisms to track those with visas and to be sure those who have entered the country actually enroll. Some have even argued for a total ban on students from certain nations, the establishment of a database to track all foreign students, or a requirement that foreign students carry an ID card with a photo and fingerprint.

3. Shift of Focus to the Northern Frontier

Geographically, the immigration debate has shifted from the nation's southern border with Mexico to the more porous northern border with Canada, a nation which some perceive has a liberal refugee and immigration policy and is seen as a conduit for terrorist movements. This is occurring despite a lack of evidence that any of the 19 hijackers involved in the September 11th attacks came through Canada.

Already, the anti-terrorism measures approved in Congress and signed by the president authorize a tripling of border agents along the U.S.-Canadian frontier in addition to the appropriation of $100 million to supplement border surveillance technology there. Correspondingly, new anti-terror legislation in Canada itself, specifically Bill C-36, seeks to enhance police powers, define acts of terrorism, crack down on money laundering and allow preventive detention of individuals suspected of belonging to a terrorist network.

Domestically, several current proposals in Congress include calls to impose the dormant border control measures embodied in Section 110 of the 1996 Immigration Act. As part of the legislative packages passed in the wake of the attack, the INS has been directed to phase in these entry and exit checks as soon as possible, something that would have been considered impractical or too expensive just three months ago. Further requirements also require that U.S. develop visas that include encoded fingerprints and digitized photos to make them machine-readable and tamper-proof. In the past, however, the INS has struggled to effectively implement such high-tech innovations.

4. An Altered Political Agenda on Migration and the Border

The attacks could not have shifted the political agenda on immigration and border softening more dramatically. The tenor in Washington has, not unexpectedly, moved from a positive orientation for border liberalization and immigration reform (consolidated earlier in the high-level meetings between Presidents Fox and Bush as well as Congressional support for a guest worker program) to a heightened attempt to seal boundaries. Put another way, the debate has shifted from economics to national security.

Fox, however, has recently met with U.S. congressional leaders in an attempt to reintroduce efforts to legalize undocumented migrants currently in the U.S. Other members of the Mexican government, including Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda have said "We would like to relaunch the agenda and recast it in the aftermath of September 11." However, Fox has conceded that there will be no overall accord with Washington this year on immigration or the legalization of millions of Mexicans residing without visas in the United States.

Conclusion: Unclear Medium and Long Term Implications for North American Borderlands

It is too early to evaluate the final outcome of these policy discussions and changes, however it does appear a new era in border control, in at least the short to medium term, is upon us, setting back steps towards further continental integration. The increases in federal resources for border control will likely be continued at ever-higher rates, but now will be targeted at both undocumented migrants-as has been the case since the mid-1990s-and potential security threats. The enhanced scrutiny of visa applicants and bolstered law-enforcement presence at the frontiers is also sure to remain.

Undoubtedly the general immigration debate in the United States has been reframed given the events of September 11th. It remains to be seen if the terrorist acts and the general tenor of American attitudes towards immigration will translate to changes in admission criteria for new immigrants. Already, some restrictionist interest groups have seized on developments to advance agendas that call for moratoriums or reductions in immigration.

The fate of so many undocumented workers already in the United States, as well as any potential guest-worker proposals or economic development initiatives in the southern borderlands with Mexico also remain uncertain.

In the final analysis, the vast, semi-porous international frontiers of North America, coupled with the practical, long-term demands of travel, interaction, as well as globalized trade and commerce patterns render fail-save terrorist screening impossible. The U.S. and multinational firms are indeed likely to be unwilling to accept slower economic growth, lower profits, and the higher costs which will come with border tightening and smaller migrant flows. Instead, policymakers may need to envision innovative intelligence gathering and sharing techniques, so-called "perimeter" continental security measures, and an informed foreign policy presence as potential policy responses given the realities of North American borderlands.

Jason Ackleson may be reached at

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