THE MAGAZINE

What’s Wrong with Border Security?

By Sherry Harowitz

The importance of money laundering as a key to organized crime was echoed by Cecilia Malmstrom, European Commissioner for Home Affairs in a March speech on the role of anti-money laundering in the fight against organized crime. She noted that organized crime is driven by profit and that these groups have become increasingly global and sophisticated. The lesson, she said, was that the security strategy has to be “following the money” and seizing their wealth. That’s the key to dismantling the networks.

But thus far, notes Goddard, no high-level executives in financial institutions have had to face prison time for money laundering, and the fines levied have not been heavy enough to serve as a real deterrent. He noted that in the case brought against HSBC, no one went to jail. As long as it’s just a fine, he said, banks will view it as the cost of doing business.

Rather than deterring organized crime by clamping down on its ability to earn money, government efforts to make it harder for day workers to cross into the United States have simply made smuggling more lucrative, which has drawn organized crime more aggressively into the business, says David Shirk, associate professor of Political Science and International Relations and director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. Shirk also spoke at the International Policy Center event.

Another problem with how the United States is approaching security along its southern border, said Shirk, is that the U.S. government acts unilaterally and does not try to partner effectively with the Mexican government as it has with the Canadian government.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that critics just keep moving the goal post every time a metric like the number of border patrol guards is met, rather than reevaluating whether those measures make sense, said Goddard. And, he adds, what’s been lost in the discussion is whether the harm done to commerce outweighs any incremental impact on the flow of illegal immigrants.

The DHS is exploring the potential of a mix of metrics that includes more of these factors, including crime on the border, illegals caught, drug interdictions, and the like, but it has yet to find a way to do this meaningfully—and the focus seems still to be strongly on who or what is smuggled across the physical border.

It all comes back to the misperception that the border is a line in the desert, said Goddard. It’s a virtual border and the cartels are crossing it in multiple ways, including through alliances with “virtually every street gang in the United States.”
The focus on illegal immigrants has distorted the discussion and led to U.S. law enforcement resources being misdirected, he said.

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