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Assessing the Obama Administration’s New Border Security Strategy

May 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Obama administration has announced plans to send 1,200 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to perform support roles, such as surveillance and intelligence analysis. Judy Woodruff gets two points of view on the new security strategy for the border.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The latest step in the Obama administration’s efforts to secure the country’s southern border came yesterday with word the president will send up to 1,200 additional National Guard troops to the region. They will join the 340 soldiers already on the ground.

The troops will perform support roles, such as conducting surveillance and intelligence analysis, but not confront smugglers or arrest those crossing into the country illegally. Mr. Obama also plans to request $500 million in supplemental funding to support enforcement effort along the border.

To assess the strategy, we get two views. Thad Bingel served as chief staff of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Bush administration. And Rick Nelson, director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

Thad Bingel, to you first. How serious is the border problem right now? Can you quantify it?

THAD BINGEL, former U.S. Customs and Border Protection official: Sure.

In many ways, it’s better and worse, Judy. It’s better in that we have a lot more resources than we had even five and certainly 10 years ago down there. We have seen a reduction in the levels of apprehensions and people crossing that border illegally.

Unfortunately, what we have seen is more organized efforts by the cartels, smuggling narcotics, actually contributing to this violence, because now they’re being confronted for the first time on both the south side of the border, with what the Calderon administration is doing, and on the north side of the border.

So, it’s not easy to get across anymore by sneaking across. And, unfortunately, that’s resulting in more violence, which has led to some of these incidents we have read about recently.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rick Nelson, would you add anything to that?

RICK NELSON, Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program director, Center for Strategic and International Studies: No, I think that’s accurate. I do think you’re seeing the cartel violence spilling over in there.

We did make some significant progress on the border security from where we were in the ’90s. So, I think it’s just a confluence of events right now that has brought this to the front.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is your understanding of what these 1,200 additional troops are going to do? What’s their mission?

RICK NELSON: Well, that’s a great question, Judy. And that’s what I think was administration was trying to struggle with, is, exactly what are these troops going to do?

And, as you pointed out, they’re mostly going to be focused on this ISR mission, or this intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support mission, so they’re not going to be doing the law enforcement activities. They’re not going to be interdicting smugglers or narcotics traffickers — narcotics traffickers.

And that’s one of the things that the administration had to consider, is, what are we going to use these troops for?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our understanding is, there was some disagreement between the Pentagon and Homeland Security over what they should do?

THAD BINGEL: And there was last time. When we did this under Operation Jump Start in 2005, 2006, where we deployed 6,000 National Guardsmen…

JUDY WOODRUFF: This was under President Bush.

THAD BINGEL: Under President Bush. There was significant disagreements between DOD and DHS about what type of units should be deployed, how they would be used.

What people also need to realize is, when you deploy 1,200 National Guardsmen, you really don’t end up with 1,200 people out on the line. They’re in mission support roles. And, really, what we saw with Jump Start was, you probably get about 500 to 600, maybe 700 tops, will be out there deployed.

You will have at least one person supporting them at various depots, headquarters, forward deployment locations on — on the National Guard side. So, it’s not — it’s not as impressive of a number as it sounds when you — when you see who’s actually out there fully deployed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rick Nelson, give us a sense of what exactly they’re going to be doing. I mean, there are four states in the Southwest that border Mexico. What kinds of jobs that people can understand are they going to be doing?

RICK NELSON: Well, they will be taking intelligence and they will be analyzing intelligence, which is a significant role.

The more individuals you have analyzing intelligence, the more likely you are to apprehend drug traffickers and whatnot. They will also be conducting, we know, operating night-vision devices and doing that kind of surveillance, perhaps operating unmanned aerial vehicles as well, and even some training of some the…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You said aerial vehicles?

RICK NELSON: Unmanned aerial vehicles, that’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and does this free up, Thad Bingel, the other Border Patrol people who are already there?

THAD BINGEL: It can, Judy. And that was one of the significant benefits of Jump Start, is that by putting Guardsmen in mission support roles, you were able to free up what we called badges back to the border.

So, you had Border Patrol agents and law enforcement communication specialists who could concentrate on other duties, including being out there on the line. But it all depends, again, on getting the right sort of National Guards units out there. You can’t take supply clerks or ordnance handlers and turn them into surveillance assets.

So, part of the challenge is, you have the Guard with a lot of commitments these days, from natural disasters to two wars. You need to get the right kind of units there to really be useful. Otherwise, you will spend a lot of time training National Guardsmen to do those tasks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what’s your sense of how much difference they’re going to make?

THAD BINGEL: It will be helpful, Judy, but no one should have an illusion that this deployment of a fifth of what we deployed under Jump Start is going to really make a dramatic difference in levels of violence along the border. They will be helpful in getting some resources immediately back to the border. They can be quickly deployed, unlike training 1,200 new Border Patrol agents. So, that — they are a stopgap. They’re not a long-term solution.

They will make some impact, but it won’t be a huge impact.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rick Nelson, how do you see what difference they are going to make?

RICK NELSON: Very minimal. Again, it will free up some law — additional law enforcement assets to focus on the mission of guarding the border itself. But at the end of the day, this is more of just an interim solution. And it’s indicative of the fact that we still need comprehensive immigration reform if we’re going to solve this problem or address this problem once and for all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are you saying it may not even be worth doing this?

RICK NELSON: Well, I think we have to ask ourselves, why are we deploying them to the border? Is this — what is the reason for doing this? It’s going to have minimal impact, but it’s not going to solve our larger immigration issue that we’re struggling with. And this is just a — the violence is just a product of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you view the balance of whether it’s worth it to add 1,200?

THAD BINGEL: I think it is, in that they can be immediately deployed. When you look at the rest of this $500 million, which is only a step towards what really needs to be done, it is focused on deploying some longer-term solutions, more Border Patrol agents, more CBP officers, constructing three new forward operating bases.

That’s the type of thing that we see in the House appropriations bill that they will mark up tomorrow that really will be helpful, but that in itself is also a little bit of a drop in the bucket. When you look at what DOD spends overall, this $177 million for the Guard deployment is part of a $64 billion war supplemental. That’s on top of a $660 billion defense budget.

We spend about $12 billion to $13 billion on border security, depending on how you count it, each year. So, you know, we have a long way to go if we really want to get to the levels that I think some people expect. And 1,200 is a nice start for the National Guard, but that’s not a long-term solution, and it’s really not enough.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And these funds that the president is asking for, you’re saying — it looks like they will probably be passed by Congress, but you’re saying they’re not going to be that much more than what is already there?

THAD BINGEL: Look, $500 million is not anything to sneeze at, but it’s a matter of not doing this in one fell swoop. It’s a — we didn’t get here overnight. It was a decades-long problem that developed. And we’re not going to solve it overnight.

We have made significant progress since 2001 and 2005. Just as an example, Judy, in 2005, the busiest station in the whole Southwest border, Yuma Station in Arizona, had 125,000 apprehensions that year of people illegally crossing the border. This last year, it was 3,800 people. That’s progress.

But it’s not complete. And I think most people would say even 3,800 might be an unacceptable number. So, until we make a sustained investment of resources over a period of years, we’re not going to get where people want us to get.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rick Nelson, given this, why do you think the president did this? And what more should be done, given the very, very charged political environment over this issue?

RICK NELSON: Well, I think it’s exactly why he did commit to them.

I mean, they have been talking about committing National Guard troops since last spring. It’s now come. I think, in the wake of the Arizona immigration law, the murder of the rancher, the president was in a position where he had to do something, especially to — with the Arizona senators coming forward so aggressively on this issue.

They’re going to be critical to any comprehensive immigration reform. So what happens — needs happen next, it’s a three-step process, basically. One, as Thad pointed out, they’re going to have to figure out what the appropriate mix of technology and people is on the border to improve the security there.

Secondly, we’re going to have to have comprehensive immigration reform. And that’s why Senators Kyl and McCain are so critical. And, then, lastly, we’re going to have to improve our bilateral relations with Mexico. And that’s what we saw with the recent visit of President Calderon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, of course, this remains a tough political issue all around.

THAD BINGEL: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, gentlemen, we thank you both for joining us, Thad Bingel, Rick Nelson. We appreciate it.

THAD BINGEL: Thank you, Judy.