From sea to shining sea

Although the continental United States has four borders, the majority of illegal immigration and smuggling—particularly of human beings and contraband—takes place along the two landlocked borders to the north and south, with the U.S.-Mexican border claiming the distinction as the one most concerning to U.S. interests.

At 1,969 miles, the country’s southern border extends from about Imperial Beach, Calif., to Brownsville, Texas, following along the Rio Grande, crossing the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts in the process. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it is the worldwide border most frequently crossed over and accounts for an estimated 20 million crossings annually. At its longest point, the border stretches along the state of Texas. California shares the shortest border with Mexico.

The U.S.-Canadian border holds its own record: At 5,525 miles, it comprises the world’s longest border between two countries, inclusive of the border shared with Alaska, which alone stretches an amazing 1,538 miles in length. Also patrolled by both the U.S. and Canada, security along this border was similarly upped following the 9/11 attacks.

Chief among the many and varied issues confronted by officials charged with protecting our borders is smuggling, primarily of contraband items such as drugs and firearms. Both have a history of tunneling attempts, but the border that divides the U.S. from Canada doesn’t share the recent violent history of its sister to the south.

Incursions into small-town America are no longer theoretical. Intelligence officials have urged law enforcement agencies, even very tiny ones, to increase awareness among their personnel of the illegal traffic and other activities currently spilling over onto Main Street U.S.A. courtesy of drug cartels. Instead, police in every state have seen the influence of these powerful cartels in one form or another, from recruitment of gang members to homicides to the sale and delivery of drugs.

And the stakes keep climbing higher and higher. Right now, cartels are recruiting large numbers of juveniles—kids impressed with the lifestyles that big drug money could buy—from the ranks of Texas high school students. That means that in addition to the usual problems that come with being a border town, officials in many of these areas are also dealing with the subversion of their own children in ever-increasing numbers.

Then again, there is also the issue of the legitimate border crossings that need to be regulated and controlled. This multi-pronged issue presents new conundrums for law enforcement officials and politicians alike on a daily basis, with few workable, budget-friendly solutions available.

Universal problems with immigration

The problem with America’s borders is that they come equipped with, well, lots of problems. And experts in immigration, law enforcement, security and other fields associated with controlling those borders all agree there is no simple cure for what ails border control. In fact, the problems are so serious and dynamic that most involved in the analysis and development of policy surrounding border control believe worst case scenarios aren’t simply conjecture, but they’re possibilities...perhaps even probabilities.

Michael Wildes, a New Jersey-based immigration attorney, former federal prosecutor and past auxiliary officer with the NYPD, has experienced all sides of the border coin (Wildes was also a member of his state’s blue ribbon immigration panel) and believes that, despite assurances from some authorities, limited resources combined with increasing demands have left the U.S. with vulnerable, porous borders.

“There are gaping holes that remain a decade after 9/11 and points of vulnerability that remain in our immigration system that are unacceptable in this century,” Wildes says.

He points out that the borders remain easily penetrable, despite this country’s efforts to shore up defenses. “There are only about 270 immigration judges (and) 5,000 ICE agents and there are hundreds of miles of border and millions upon millions of people who are here unlawfully,” he says.

Wildes says the immigration system, as well as our border defenses as they now stand are, in his opinion, broken and the laws outdated. “The last time (the laws) were rewritten it was in a different economy and in a different generation,” he says.

The former federal prosecutor says the upshot of having antiquated laws on the books and inadequate means to enforce them is that people who should be able to immigrate are prevented from doing so, while many who should be denied entry make it across the border. Wildes says inequities such as these contribute to the challenges the nation still faces.

Wildes believes security should begin in other countries, before those who immigrate actually breech U.S. borders, including all forms of transportation. He notes the U.S. has cooperative agreements with other countries at certain ports of entry, but says they are very limited. “And once someone has bootstrapped himself onto safe ground, then we have an issue,” he says.

Wildes says the U.S. should avail itself of new technology and believes that the use of profiling by law enforcement officers is simply exercising good common sense. “We shouldn’t be shy about that,” he says.

Other border considerations

Gary Hale is a nonresident fellow at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. A native of Laredo, Texas, Hale was intelligence chief at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and completed tours of duty in countries like Columbia and Bolivia. Hale also served in the nation’s capitol, most notably as a liaison to the NSA.

Like most experts who have actually spent time in the trenches when it comes to this country’s borders, Hale believes that change has to come from the ground up, and in fact helped brief the Obama transition team as to border concerns when they first arrived in power. He says Washington has, “never had a good understanding of what’s happening on the borders”—a sentiment that’s reflected by many insiders who believe policy wonks tend to ignore the mechanics of their decisions. It’s one thing entirely to make laws and order them enforced; it’s another thing to enforce them without adequate manpower, equipment or support.

Hale classifies the border as “relatively calm” prior to the year 2000, when, he says, people could engage in casual travel in both directions with relative ease. Hale says that began to change in the developing shadow of the predominant drug cartels (organizational restructuring, members going to jail, etc.) and inter-cartel fighting worsened. A political regime change, designed to confront and combat the cartels head-on, added to the heating up of the southern border.

Meanwhile, on the northern border, the national posture changed in order to accommodate the incursion of terrorist crossings to and from the United States, with both Canada and the United States on high alert to the possible smuggling of weapons or illegal entry by citizens of other countries. Drug smuggling, long believed to be the exclusive purview of the border with Mexico, continued to flourish on the northern border, too. And human trafficking continued to proliferate along both. But the southern border is, by far, the more volatile of the two, say the preponderance of experts.

The emerging problem

Jim Walters, Assistant Chief of Police at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and a liaison for training and technical assistance for the Dept. of Justice’s Southern Border Initiative, says what’s ahead is a parent’s worst nightmare and U.S.-based law enforcement’s biggest headache: increased involvement in drug trafficking and murder committed by U.S. citizens. Even worse, says Walters, the offenders are getting younger and younger.

By example he offers the case of a Louisville, Kentucky police raid that netted the arrests of four Mexican nationals police identified as members of the Zetas, one of that country’s most dangerous and sophisticated cartels. Along with the four men arrested was a local juvenile. Walters says the involvement of the child isn’t a fluke: some of the most practiced criminals employed by the cartels are now children.

“The cartels have so much more money than the Crips, Bloods, Latin Kings or any of those gangs...and their ability to recruit these kids is really strong,” Walters says, adding that he believes this country is just seeing the beginnings of what the cartels of the future are capable of doing, and the answer is both devious and chilling.

“They’re not just using kids as transport, but as enforcers, because when the average patrol officer is driving down the road and he sees a 14- or 15-year-old, he doesn’t think of him (as a threat),” he says.

That certainly has been the case with an American born 14-year-old whose Mexican mother entered the U.S. illegally. The boy, who stands accused of being a cartel assassin specializing in torturing and beheading his victims, was believed to have started killing human beings when he was a mere 11 years old. The boy worked for the Cartel of the South Pacific, according to officials, and was believed to have received about $3,000 per murder.

Although the child claims to have been forced to kill (a fact that some dispute), many of those who are conscripted by the cartels do so willingly. As Walters points out, money goes a long way towards making the step to violence easy.

Walters agrees there is no easy fix for border security issues, either in the north or south, and says he believes law enforcement needs to communicate better for any fix to work.

“The one area we have to talk about and look at is the tracking and reporting: How good a job are we doing at looking at these cases...and how good a job are we doing as a profession at sharing these lessons and getting [them] out beyond the border?” asks Walters.

By recognizing that crimes bleeding over our borders into other countries and vice versa affect U.S. citizens in every state, and sharing intelligence system-wide, law enforcement can help agencies like ICE and the Border Patrol do their jobs more efficiently and help build better, more efficient partnerships for the future.


A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at