Border Management

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The effective management of U.S. borders has become a priority for the U.S. government, as it attempts both to control illegal immigration and to prevent the importation of illegal narcotics. Though most of the focus has been placed on the U.S.-Mexico border, increasing drug traffic and illegal immigration from Canada has led to more surveillance of the northern border as well. The effectiveness of border management has historically been very difficult, as many federal agencies had some jurisdiction in this area. The failure to coordinate and consolidate border operations limited the ability of the government to meet its objectives. However, by the late 1990s, Congress had moved toward a border policy that was supported by increased funding and a stronger management system.

In 1977, a U.S. government interagency team led by the Office of Drug Abuse Policy (ODAP) conducted a comprehensive review of border control and recommended consolidation of the principal border-control functions into a single border-management agency. Executive departments failed to agree on distribution of resources and organizational placement of the new agency. The border-management agency never materialized.

Border control in the United States was described in the review as an extremely complex problem involving vast distances, many modes of transportation, millions of arrivals and departures, and millions of tons of cargo. Laws to be enforced involved illegal drugs and other contraband, terrorists, public-health threats, agricultural pests and diseases, endangered species, entry visas, duties, and so forth. Nine federal agencies shared border-control responsibilities, contributing to overlap, duplication of effort, and duplicated management systems.

The ODAP report recommended consolidating the inspection and patrolling functions, including operational and administrative support. The potential for improved effectiveness in a consolidated border-management agency was widely recognized. A similar report by the U.S. Congress's General Accounting Office (GAO) also recommended single-agency management and responsibility for border control. Controversy over which activities to include and which executive department should control the new agency was, however, effective in blocking further action.

Major change came when Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA). The IIRIRA is a tough, enforcement-oriented law that seeks to restrict the passage of undocumented aliens across the U.S. borders. The IIRIRA mandated increasing the number of Border Patrol agents by 5000. The law also mandated that the additional Border Patrol agents be deployed in sectors along the border in proportion to the numbers of illegal crossings at such sectors. The legislation, however, requires that the Attorney General coordinate with and act in conjunction with state and local law enforcement agencies to ensure that deployment of resources to the border does not degrade or compromise the capabilities of interior Border Patrol stations.

Even before the passage of the IIRIRA, the Border Patrol had begun to implement new enforcement strategies. A 1998 Government Accounting Officer report noted that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had has made progress in implementing some, but not all, aspects of the necessary strategy to curtail illegal entry in the southwest. The strategy, begun in 1994, called for the Border Patrol to (1) allocate additional Border Patrol resources in a four-phased approach starting with the areas of highest-known illegal activity; (2) make maximum use of physical barriers; (3) increase the proportion of time Border Patrol agents spend on border enforcement activities; and (4) identify the appropriate mix of technology, equipment, and personnel needed for the Border Patrol. At ports of entry along the southwest border, the strategy called for the inspections program to increase inspector staff and use additional technology to increase the deterrence and detection of illegal entry and to improve management of legal traffic and commerce.

In addition to the increases in personnel, the IIRIRA required the construction of new barriers along the border and authorizes the purchase of new equipment. The law directed the Attorney General to install additional barriers to deter illegal crossings, especially in areas of high numbers of illegal entries. The legislation mandated the construction of fencing and road improvements in the 14-mile border area near San Diego, starting at the Pacific Ocean and extending eastward. In particular, the law mandated the construction of second and third fences, in addition to the existing reinforced fence, as well as roads between the fences.

As for policing illegal narcotic shipments, the U.S. Customs Service has employed technology to assist its agents. For example, giant x-ray machines have been installed at ports of entry. Trucks and their cargo are examined in this non-intrusive way to detect cocaine vapors. Other high-tech equipment, such as night-vision goggles, motion sensors and low-light TV cameras are now being used on the border.

(See also: Drug Interdiction ; Operation Intercept )


Havemann, J. (1978). Carter's reorganization plansscrambling for turf. National Journal, 10, (20), 788-794.

Osuna, Juan P. (1999). Update On Selected Enforcement Provisions of The Illegal Immigration Reform And Immigrant Responsibility Act Of 1996. 99-01 Immigr. Briefings 1.

Andreas, Peter. (April 2000). U.S.-Mexico Drug Control in the Age of Free Trade. Borderlines.

Richard L. Williams

Revised by Frederick K. Grittner