The concept of secure borders shouldn’t end at the border

By Matt Rooney & Gustavo De La Fuente

It’s a mistake to consider border security as something that happens only at the border itself.

Rather, policymakers and the public should think in terms of a series of perimeters, keeping in mind that, the farther away from our physical border we can push the outermost perimeter, the greater our security.

The sense of crisis at our southern border underscores one reason why our national immigration debate is so intractable: We are unable to agree on a definition of border security.

To map a way out of this impasse, the George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative brought together a group of experts on border policy to discuss the challenges facing our southern border as well as practical and effective solutions. The group, to which both of us belonged, included business leaders and policy experts with firsthand border knowledge. Drawing on the group’s discussions, an analysis of the challenge and a set of recommendations was published.

In the case of the U.S.-Mexico border, the first perimeter lies far to the south, in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Many migrants feel compelled to leave those countries because they fear for their safety or they see no way to prosper. Our country can work with their governments to strengthen the rule of law and boost their economies’ ability to grow and create jobs.

The second perimeter lies partly in Central America, but mostly in Mexico. The Mexican drug cartels and Central American street gangs have turned migrant smuggling into an industry, preying on human misery and deepening poverty in the region.

California’s lenient policies toward migrants and the state’s large, powerful economy create a prime destination for smuggling. American law enforcement agencies must work with counterparts in Mexico — carefully, with no illusions about the prevalence of corruption — to combat organized crime, interdict drug trafficking and secure Mexico’s own borders.

The third perimeter is the 1,900-mile border line that stretches from Port Isabel, Texas, to San Diego. It runs down the middle of the Rio Grande, through protected wetlands, urban areas, private ranch land, wildlife refuges, deserts, mountain ranges and Native American reservations. This varied geography demands a varied approach: walls and fences in urban areas like San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, and sensors and drones in remote areas like the Sonoran Desert.

Most contraband crosses the border concealed in vehicles at legal ports of entry. This suggests the use of scanners and increasingly sophisticated detection technologies, training of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and intelligence cooperation with Mexican authorities so we can identify smugglers before they arrive at the border.

The fourth and last perimeter is within the United States itself. It may sound counterintuitive, but real border security is only possible when paired with a robust legal immigration system.

Our economy is bouncing back strongly from COVID-19, producing many opportunities that our existing labor pool can’t fill. As long as our legal migration channels fail to offer ways to take advantage of these opportunities, people will attempt to cross the border illicitly. From this perspective, a sensible immigration system is a precondition to border security, not the other way around.

Additionally, our asylum system is under stress because too many would-be immigrant workers, frustrated by the lack of legal pathways to work and unwilling to enter illegally, attempt to claim asylum as a workaround.

The United States must increase legal and administrative resources at the border and rely more on in-region processing so that would-be migrants can quickly have clarity about their status.

Immigration is about people and is therefore unendingly complex. The United States can still manage its borders if we focus on fostering a thriving society and a growing economy. If we persevereborder security will follow naturally.

Rooney is managing director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative, George W. Bush Presidential Center. He lives in Dallas. De La Fuente is executive director of the San Diego-Tijuana Smart Border Coalition. He lives in La Jolla.