Leadership and Security (lessons learned on the border)

It's amazing that I wrote this in March of 2019................and it still stands today!

I find the current debate about border security (or insecurity) to be fascinating and frightening all at once. It was only a few years ago that I found myself advising Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Border Patrol (BP) regarding paramilitary shaping operations along the Tucson Sector in Arizona. I was a Captain in the US Army and was given the task of developing a liaison position to the Commander of BP, in the region. It was slightly intimidating, but I loved the challenge. I could never have imagined the enormity of "securing the border" even as an Arizona resident. It was daunting and ultimately, disappointing to say the least.

My first week at the Joint Field Command (2012) in Tucson, included a quick introduction to some of the best people I have ever worked with in government or commercial security. One of those people was an agent with the Office of Air and Marine. A former Air Force Pilot and fellow Military Officer, he offered to show me the mission, rather than talk about it. We jumped into an Astar helicopter and took off for Nogales, a US/Mexico City along the Arizona border.

I remember the flight vividly as we flew over grassy plains and the Huachuca mountains. I looked down and saw hundreds of game trails and asked how the hunting was. The agent smiled at me and stated, "depends on what your hunting". I must have been looking a bit bewildered because he started cracking up. "Those are from people crossing", he said. I felt a bit overwhelmed as I started to think about how I could possibly make a dent in this situation.

Over the next eighteen months, I was extremely busy developing plans with CBP and BP to push intelligence driven operations from the strategic level down through the ranks to the agents on the ground. Part of that planning included the collection of information to determine the size and scope of criminal crossings and the driving factors behind them. I would love to say that everyone crossing was just looking for a better quality of life, but it would only be half true. Of course all people, criminal or not, are searching for contentment in life. The issue is how they go about doing it and who they hurt along the way.

Regardless of the motivation, every person crossing the border who was not in a position of power within the Drug Trafficking Organization (DTO), was victimized. There are common misconceptions about the border and those crossing it every day. The picture of the starry-eyed immigrant, adventuring across the desert with only their hopes and dreams, is skewed. The propaganda outlets pushing that message should take the time to go down to the border and experience it for more than a day.

Most Americans do not see the search and rescue operations that Border Patrol, Search, Trauma, and Rescue (BORSTAR) conduct daily during the hottest time of the year. They don't hear about the recovered bodies of those that don't make it through the blistering heat. They don't see the rape victims who are damaged for life or the trafficked children who have to "pay up" even after forking over thousands of dollars to the traffickers. They don't know that regardless of what that migrants’ goal in crossing is, they will only cross when and where the DTO's say, and will carry a load of narcotics as well.

As I became more familiar with the numbers of those crossing and the sacrifices they made to do it, I realized that they were being preyed upon by vultures from all sides. There was no reason why they should not be able to take their hard-earned resources and attempt to come into the country legally. Why were so many giving up on the legal path before they even tried to explore it?

I began to work with some of the planners in CBP that were responsible for analysis of information before submitting strategic plans. All of us agreed that the only way to secure the border was economically. The logical solution was to somehow remove the economic disparity between Mexico and the United States. Of course, we also knew that we could not control what the Mexican government does to bolster its economy or secure its own borders, so we came up with a more feasible solution; make it easier for migrants to get a work visa and then declare open season on the criminals crossing the border.

We all knew that it was common for migrants working in the United States temporarily, to send most of their money home to family. Growing up in California, I worked in a nursery and was privy to this action first hand. I was the only "gringo" on the crew and saw the lengths my co-workers went through to save and send. Streamlining the work visa process to allow workers in legally would kill two (or even three) birds with one stone. It would fill the gap left in the declining US skilled labor force, bolster the Mexican economy, and provide for those living in poverty south of the border. Simple right!

The second part of the solution was based upon what happens after the visa process is remedied. Once streamlined and operating efficiently, the US government could focus on tougher enforcement efforts on the border. The current issues regarding tough enforcement are due to the perception that the worker is being persecuted for only wanting a better life. The focus is on the average worker, not the traffickers. Once that perception has changed and the migrants are working legally, government enforcement efforts could increase significantly without much backlash.

As far as erecting a wall along the whole border, I don't remember ever discussing a physical barrier with my CBP or BP brothers and sisters. However, I am confident we would all agree that it would act as a deterrent, but never stop traffic completely. There will always be a supply if the demand is there.

A physical barrier would funnel traffic to manageable areas, decreasing the life and death risk that agents take every day, as well as increase the chances of finding narcotics and money crossing the border. The argument that "a wall will not stop all traffic" is not logical as there are no mitigating factors that would stop all traffic. It would however, without a doubt, significantly decrease traffic.

The numerous common-sense solutions presented by the people who work, live, and breathe border security daily are unfortunately void and will not likely be implemented. The reason behind this observation on my part, is a lack of leader buy in. These planning conversations would typically end with one of the agents asking who was going to submit the plan to their higher leaders (with a smirk of pessimism of course). I am sure these types of solutions have been submitted before. They just did not go further than the planning room or the agency political oversight committees (I am confidently speculating of course).

The one constant in the border security argument is a political leader’s ability to use it as a constituent binding campaign slogan, whether for or against. The last six presidents have run on this topic, promising to fix it, and never delivering on that promise. It will be very interesting to see if President Trump can deliver, as he has made more progress than the last few.

I wish I could say that the border security issue was solved, and I had something to do with it. I imagine the thousands of lives saved and those that could benefit from the American Dream, had they been able to go through the legal process. Unfortunately, this is a security issue that will likely be up for endless debate, small victories on either side and ultimately, the continued flow of pain and suffering from the victims on both sides of the line.... while our leaders continue to talk.

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