The Society for the
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Event report: Is the Border Broken? Rethinking the Conventional Wisdom

23 September 2011

Is the Border Broken? Rethinking the Conventional Wisdom was brought together by the Immigration Policy Center and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at the Mexico Institute on September 12. The speakers at the event, Terry Goddard, Former Attorney General of Arizona, Josiah Heyman, Chair of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Texas, El Paso, and Eric Olsen, Senior Associate at the Mexico Institute, were tasked with answering,

- How does the U.S. ensure its security while facilitating trade?
- Is border fortification the best way to stop unauthorized migration and trafficking in drugs and humans?
- What about south-bound inspections to disrupt firearms trafficking and money laundering?

Eric Olsen who has done extensive research on the sociology of border security during times of vigilance against international terrorism, opened the session by underlining a current tendency of policymakers to conflate border patrol with fighting terrorism. It is vital that we get the priorities right here. Josiah Heyman agreed, saying that we need to refocus on the real security issues. If you look at the statistics showing a recent decline in numbers of border arrests it appears that the beefed-up patrolling has worked. Other reasons for the decline have been offered such as that it is due to the recession or that it is because increasing numbers of unauthorized immigrants have been imprisoned. However, the real question is “is this as serious a security concern as the investment seems to merit?” We need to reprioritize how we think about security. He remarked ironically that, given its current priorities, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should be renamed the Department for Unselective Mass Migration Enforcement.

We need to be more fiscally responsible because we are currently spending $10bn per year on enforcement. Heyman recommended that we split the areas into three issues: (1) migration; (2) the crime, guns, and drugs complex; and (3) terrorism. Unauthorized immigrants are not a threat to American society. No terrorists are known to have crossed American borders, plus there is a big feasibility problem with total border policing. When it comes to organized crime and the potential vulnerable spots for terrorism penetration, it is the U.S.’s ports of entry. This is the route that most trafficking takes. Relatively little is over the border. Terri Goddard agreed with these points and reiterated that it is impractical to have a program that simultaneously handles migrant workers and terrorism.

A webcast of the event is available at

Alex Ingrams
SPSSI Policy Coordinator

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                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin