Strengthening border security: Look no further than the Jones Act

As homeland security and border control remain a top priority among presidential candidates, one important provider of that security is often overlooked—the principal role the domestic maritime industry plays in securing America’s borders.  Without the Jones Act—an essential security law that requires the use of American vessels and American crews when transporting cargo by water between two points in the United States—America’s challenges in preventing illegal immigration would be substantially more challenging.

For as long as I can remember, those who support our domestic maritime sector have trumpeted the Jones Act’s economic benefits, now estimated at 500,000 jobs and nearly $100 billion in annual economic impact, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.  Jones Act supporters also proudly tout the national security benefits, citing some of the most senior military officials in the land who stand behind the law, such as Gen. Paul J. Selva, current Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Darren McDew, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, and Anthony FoxxAnthony FoxxGreat Lakes senators seek boost for maritime system Feds create advisory panel for self-driving cars Safety agency falls behind in rulemaking for hazardous materials MORE, Secretary Department of Transportation.

To me, however, the most vital benefit of the Jones Act is the law’s critical role in protecting America’s borders and homeland security.

America is a maritime nation and an ever growing number of foreign ships and seafarers arrive at our shores every single day. When a foreign ship enters an American port, an avalanche of procedures go into effect, involving our most important maritime security agencies, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security.  In most cases, unless the crew members on these ships have the appropriate visas, they cannot leave the highly secure confines of the port into which the vessel arrives. Dealing with tens of thousands of foreign ships and millions of foreign crew members ships is a highly complex and sophisticated undertaking that requires massive resources from our law enforcement agencies.

Of course, the arrival of foreign ships into our ports has nothing to do with the Jones Act, which only applies to purely domestic movements of cargo within our country.  Compared to arriving foreign ships, the security profile of the Jones Act fleet is far more reassuring.  Jones Act ships are crewed by Americans who have passed intensive background checks and are licensed by the Coast Guard.  The vessels are owned by Americans and subject to  American laws and regulations.  The American vessel owners and crew members are full partners with American law enforcement agencies.

Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Coast Guard Subcommittee, and Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House Majority Whip, put it this way:

 “Without the Jones Act, vessels and crews from foreign nations could move freely on U.S. waters, creating a more porous border, increasing possible security threats, and introducing vessels and mariners who do not adhere to U.S. standards into the bloodstream of our nation.”

Helping plug a porous border is a benefit of the Jones Act that is far too often overlooked and one that should not be underestimated by any presidential candidate.

Gorton represented Washington in the Senate from 1981 to 1987 and again from 1989 to 2001. He was a member of the National Commission on Terrorists Acts Against the United States, commonly known as the 911 Commission. Today, Gorton is a lawyer at K&L Gates, a law firm that represents various maritime interests.