SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- The 9/11 terrorists entered the country legally. But the attacks forever changed public attitudes toward our nation’s borders and, in many cases, toward immigrants.
Border security has become a rallying cry. Now, a decade after the twin towers fell, U.S. borders are much more protected. But experts believe they can never be absolutely secured.
The federal government put aside $5 billion in its 2002 budget for border security. Last year, that investment more than doubled to nearly $12 billion. The largest chunk went to the Border Patrol, which has grown from 11,000 agents to more than 21,000 in the last decade. The increased funding also went to the construction of about 650 miles of new fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border across the Southwest.
“The 9/11 attack was really a major game-changer,” said Elyse Golob, who runs the National Center for Border Security and Immigration at the University of Arizona. “Immigration became immediately linked with anti-terrorism and national security and that led to growing concern and movement toward secure borders.”
Homeland security officials credit the border build-up for an unprecedented reduction in illegal immigration. Arrests this year are at a 40-year low. Others believe the economic downturn in the U.S. is another cause.
But security threats remain.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that only 44 percent of the Mexican border and just 5 percent of the Canadian border are under what they deem “operational control.”
Cathy Berrick leads GAO probes of homeland security.
“There's been a lot of improvements and we're more prepared than we were against a terrorist attack,” Berrick said. “However, there are still key operational gaps that are really important to address for the department to reach its full potential related to securing the border.”
But the illegal entry of people is still just one aspect of border security. In the wake of 9/11, there was a massive reorganization of the border security apparatus. A new agency – Customs and Border Protection (CBP) – was created within the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Robert Bonner was the first CBP commissioner. To address concerns over the possibility of terrorist weapons coming across, he oversaw the installation of X-Ray machines and radiation detectors at border crossings. But he says more is needed – specifically, container inspection agreements with Mexico and Canada.
“Whether that’s putting a Mexican pre-clearance, pre-inspection program in San Antonio and the U.S. putting its pre-inspection in Monterrey, that’s what we should be doing,” Bonner said.
But increased border security of any kind can only go so far. That’s according to leading analysts who maintain that leaders should not solely focus on the border.
“This is like asking a cancer patient how you feel after a chemo treatment,” said Jim Carafano, who researches national security issues at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “You might feel a little bit better, but until the cancer’s gone, the problem is still there.”
He added that money is not the solution.
“Unless you have not just border security, but enforcement of immigration laws, real temporary worker programs, real working on the U.S.-Mexican partnership, you can throw as much money as you want at it – it’s never going to get solved,” Carafano said.
So a decade after the 9/11 attacks and despite dramatic efforts to protect the nation’s borders, immigration remains critically linked to border security.
Ironically, just at this time 10 years ago, the U.S. and Mexico were on the verge of signing a historic treaty tackling the illegal immigration problem. The effort became snarled in post-9/11 politics and has never been resurrected.