The negotiations in Washington over security at our southern border should focus on three of the real emergencies that are causing widespread human suffering and exacting high costs in both the U.S. and Mexico:
- illegal drug trafficking from Mexico;
- organized crime-fed violence in Mexico fueled by money and guns from the U.S.; and
- the plight of migrants trying to reach the U.S.
Agreeing on a reasonable approach to identifying what type of physical barriers may be needed, and where, is one element of addressing current problems.
However, a much greater contribution to America’s well-being will be achieved if Washington officials emerge from this debate with agreement on a broader set of investments to bolster long-term security at and around the border.
Drugs and border technology
One real human emergency that involves the border is the rapidly increasing number of U.S. drug overdose deaths. There is an urgent need for increased funding of technology tools at legal border crossings to staunch the illegal flow of hard drugs into the U.S. driven by strong domestic demand: The bulk of these hard drugs arrive through legal border crossings.
At present, only a small portion of north-bound cross-border cargo, and even fewer private vehicles and pedestrians, are checked for drugs and other illicit goods.
In the southbound direction, there are still fewer checks looking for the billions of dollars in illegal drug profits and smuggled guns purchased to arm criminal groups in Mexico.
Funding new surveillance and scanning technology for the U.S. and Mexican ports of entry along the border could significantly reduce this illicit commerce, including in opioids. The technology is available now to scan vehicles rapidly, as well as pedestrians.
If Congress would fund this new scanning technology for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to be used on the U.S. side of the border and, at the same time, provide funds through the State Department’s Merida program for similar technology to use on the Mexican side of the border, this would significantly fortify and upgrade the security at all ports of entry.
CBP and Mexican customs (SAT) already effectively work together along the border, via Unified Cargo Processing (UCP). Deploying new technology would greatly enhance the ability of law enforcement to disrupt the truly dangerous criminal smuggling in both directions and would provide real returns for the wellbeing of both countries.
Crime-fueled violence in Mexico
Highly profitable U.S. drug sales over the last 10-plus years have built increasingly powerful criminal networks that span both countries. The Drug Enforcement Agency and Justice Department estimate that the drug trade yields up to $20-$30 billion a year for criminal organizations.
With those profits, criminals buy guns in the U.S. and bribe officials wherever they can. They use their networks and powerful control in border zones to manipulate and profit from many kinds of illicit activity, including migrant smuggling.
The drug trade has driven a broader deterioration of law and order in Mexico, widespread corruption and massive increases in homicides. 2017 and 2018 each set new records for violent homicides in Mexico, with over 33,000 reported last year.
This suffering was accompanied by increased crimes involving guns in Mexico: Many purchased in or through the U.S. (It has not, however, spilled over significantly into U.S. border counties where crime is lower than the U.S. national average except in one location.)
Popular anger over the violence and corruption powered the election of Mexico’s new president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) in 2018. He has promised to return the country to peace and reduce corruption through a range of social, economic and law enforcement programs.
Given Mexico’s enormous human and economic ties to the U.S., including that Mexico is the second-largest export market for U.S. products, increased investments in U.S.-Mexico cooperation via more funding for U.S. assistance programs and law enforcement cooperation will bring huge benefit on both sides of the border.
For example, U.S. and Mexican officials agree that it is essential to disrupt and seize illicit profits of criminal networks spanning both countries. Mexico is currently trying to do just that to halt massive gasoline thefts. The U.S. has an opportunity to build more effective joint efforts against illicit financial flows.
Central American migrants
A third human emergency involving the border is the increase of Central American migrants since 2014, who have been pushed out of their countries by crime, poor governance and food insecurity.
The U.S. has launched aid programs in Central America, which will help address the root causes of the migration over time, but there is a need to expand and better target aid for this purpose. Migrant families still feel compelled to make the often dangerous northward trek, now in large caravans.
AMLO invited the United States to join Mexico in a longer-term effort to create jobs and opportunity in southern Mexico and Central America to blunt northward flows, and the two governments have agreed on steps to take this work forward in 2019.
But the situation at our common border remains problematic. U.S. officials say they have Mexico’s de facto agreement to implement a “wait-in-Mexico” policy for asylum seekers, but it is not clear that this approach will work well or avoid further border crises.
Congress can improve the situation by increasing funds to hire more judges and other crucial personnel to more rapidly process migration cases, as well as by increasing Merida funding to bolster Mexican border and migration agencies.
In addition, providing funds for humanitarian care for migrants waiting in Mexico (as well as in the U.S.) appears to be an increasingly urgent need.
Congressional support for these and related steps to address the real emergencies touching our southern border can significantly advance U.S. security.
Earl Anthony Wayne is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, among other diplomatic positions.