Border security expert Sylvia Longmire

Originally aired on May 1, 2014

An experienced intelligence professional, Longmire dissects her book, Border Insecurity.

Sylvia Longmire is a former U.S. Air Force officer and special agent who's conducted numerous criminal investigations and worked extensively in the fields of counterintelligence, counterespionage and force protection. She also previously worked as a senior intelligence analyst for the State of California, where she focused almost exclusively on Mexican drug trafficking organizations and southwest border violence issues. An award-winning correspondent and contributing editor for Homeland Security Today magazine, her books include Cartel and, her latest, Border Insecurity. Longmire holds a master's degree in Latin American and Caribbean studies.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: How best to defend and protect our border with Mexico continues to drive debate, of course. Now Sylvia Longmire, a former Air Force officer and special agent who has worked extensively in the field of national security has written a new tome.

It’s titled “Border Insecurity: Why Big Money, Fences, and Drones Aren’t Making Us Safer,” that challenges conventional wisdom about the issue. Sylvia, good to have you on the program.

Sylvia Longmire: Thank you very much.

Tavis: How important, after all these years of debate still ongoing, obviously, to, as I said a moment ago, challenge the conventional wisdom about this issue?

Longmire: It’s very frustrating, because we’ve poured so many billions of dollars into securing our borders. There’s so much rhetoric on both sides of the political aisle, and here we are, 10 years after the creation, actually almost 11 years after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

We still have tons and tons of illegal drugs that are coming across the border; we still have tons of illegal immigrants that are coming across the border with no real way to manage that at a non-law enforcement level. Yet we’re still kind of in almost in the same place as where we started.

Tavis: Let me start with some of the myths that still exist. There are two or three things that jumped out at me immediately going through the text.

Longmire: Sure.

Tavis: But I’ll let you do the honors here. But just talk about some of the myths that exist about border insecurity, even though we’ve been debating this for years now.

Longmire: Well taking a look at the – let’s start with the fence.

Tavis: Sure.

Longmire: Some people believe that if you completely wall off the fence from San Diego down to Brownsville in south Texas, that will magically stop everybody from coming across, and that’s one of the biggest myths of all.

There were people who even got across the Berlin Wall. You have drug cartels that are coming up with the most innovative strategies every single day to get drugs either around it, under it.

We’ve had, I think, over roughly 165 border tunnels that have been discovered just in the last decade. You have cartels and drug smugglers that are launching the drugs over the fence using a catapult, sliding packages in between the bollards of the fence, and shaping them so they can go through the tunnels.

So that’s one of the biggest myths. Then you have another myth regarding, let’s say, illegal immigration, one of the biggest controversies that we have going on right now, that drug smugglers and potential terrorists and illegal immigrants can all be categorized together at the same level of threat.

That’s not the case. You have so many, hundreds of thousands of people that are coming here to the United States every single day that do not pose a threat to national security.

Yet we believe that it’s a one-size-fits-all strategy where we can just kind of go after everybody in the same way, and that will all of a sudden make our border more secure, if you can stop everybody. That’s not really a smart strategy.

Tavis: I think everybody wants – nobody would argue against border security, but why does everything begin and end with this notion of a fence? Whether it’s practical or not, I’m just trying to get a sense of where we started with this idea that a fence was the answer.

Longmire: Well if you take a look at the way that the fence has progressed over the years, where it started and kind of where it is now, it does have a purpose, and there are certain parts of the border, certain sectors where the fence is effective.

Even the border patrol will tell you that the fence is not designed to stop anybody. It’s strictly designed to slow people down long enough for border patrol to respond.

Tavis: Okay.

Longmire: You have sectors like in San Diego; you have sectors like Yuma, Arizona. I live in southern Arizona and it’s not too far, the southwestern part of the state, where that sector is locked down. There is nothing coming and going there.

But unfortunately what happens is that without a full fence, you have just a funnel effect where that fence moves both drug smugglers and migrants to unfenced parts of the border, and they continue to flow across, kind of like the flow of water.

Unfortunately, a lot of those individuals are being funneled into places that are extremely dangerous and often deadly. So the fence, it works in some places to keep certain communities safe, because it moves particularly violent drug smugglers away from communities. But it still isn’t stopping the flow. The people are still coming across.

Tavis: So your subtitle raises three issues: big money, fences, and drones. I just talked about the fences; let me jump now to the drones. When you say drones aren’t making us safer, that kind of scares me, in part because I keep hearing politicians in Washington suggest that drones are now the answer to everything.

Longmire: Drones are very useful. All border technology is very useful, as long as it’s employed in a smart way. We’ve had drones along the border for several years, used in the Caribbean for counter-drugs operations, and also used on the northern border.

However, the Government Accountability Office has kind of hit Customs and Border Protection very hard in the last couple of years because they’re not utilizing them effectively.

They hadn’t had a priority list; they were allowing other agencies to use them for different missions, and not really kind of keeping track and prioritizing how they’re being used.

The capabilities that the unmanned aerial vehicles have are outstanding. However, it’s a human mismanagement problem is really what it is. We’re just not being efficient and effective with how they’re being used, and they could be utilized a lot better.

Tavis: Speaking of human mismanagement, what are the ways, some of the ways, in which we are most unwisely spending taxpayers’ dollars in this fight?

Longmire: One of the answers that I’ve seen, quote, unquote “answers” that I’ve seen in the various bills that are being proposed by Congress for securing the border is to hire more border patrol agents.

I think the latest bill is to send 20,000 more agents. We have 20,000 there now, so to double the border patrol agents that are on the border, an additional $46 billion in spending on various technological platforms.

If you go to any conference that deals with border security and you go into the expo hall, and I talk about that a little bit in the book, the technology is out there. The solutions are out there.

The money is out there to spend on it, but we’re just throwing money, instead of taking a look at where are the biggest threats. Why are we not prioritizing our threats and putting the most people where they’re the most needed, and taking a look at some smarter technology solutions?

We’re throwing money away, like the virtual border fence – $1 billion that we spent in just five years to put together a virtual border fence of towers and cameras and sensors, and it was ultimately scrapped because CBP, or Customs and Border Protection, didn’t have the management in place to manage the contract.

So Boeing just kind of took it and ran away with it. We have the ability, we have the technology, just we’re not being smart and strategic about making it a smart border, and where we’re spending the money.

Tavis: We’ll talk in a moment about what represents a significant threat and what represents a less significant threat. So we’ll kind of break that out in a second.

But when you talk about spending money on threats, what do you mean, how are you defining the word “threat?”

Longmire: Well we have three groups of people that are coming across the border right now.

Tavis: Right.

Longmire: We have members or associates of terrorist groups, like Hezbollah, coming here to raise money. Then you have criminals, violent drug smugglers, members of cartels, and gangs who support the cartels. Then you have immigrants.

Two out of those three represent a significant national security threat – the terrorists and the smugglers. Then you have this enormous group of people, which in my opinion vastly outnumber the first two groups of people.

That, out of the three, it’s the only group that could be managed at the legislative and the policy. I don’t know what the answer to immigration reform is. If I did, I could write a book and I’m sure I’d make a lot of money and have a large audience.

Tavis: Don’t feel bad, don’t feel bad. (Laughter)

Longmire: Yeah.

Tavis: They don’t know in Washington either.

Longmire: They don’t know in Washington, no. (Laughter) But that’s the only group that can be managed at the policy level. If you could find a way to remove the illegal immigration problem from the law enforcement level, that lifts a tremendous burden from our men and women that are working so hard every day in horrible conditions, sometimes.

Border patrol, Customs and Border Protection, our border sheriffs and local law enforcement, tribal law enforcement, if they could focus on the truly bad people who are coming here to harm us and no longer have to worry about interdicting just economic migrants, I think that would be a much better use of our limited resources.

Tavis: I’m not naïve, obviously, in asking this question, Sylvia, but why is it of those three groups that the only one that seems to get the focus of our attention, to the extent that we focus on this issue in any meaningful way anyway, is that third group?

Longmire: Oh, it’s so emotional. I come from an immigrant family myself. My family came here from Cuba in the ’60s, so I have a personal connection. My family came here in a different way.

We were eligible, my family was eligible for asylum because they were coming from a communist country, and now we’re taking a look at such an increase, a doubling and tripling every year of immigrants that are coming not just from Mexico but from Central America, that are asking for asylum.

The security and economic issue has changed so much in Central America in just the last 10 years. It’s emotional because we have such a large immigrant community that’s here, both legally and illegally.

They form such an enormous part of our national culture, of our economy, so there’s a lot of emotion, heated emotion, involved with hey, we belong here, we work hard, and we’re trying to earn our place in the United States.

Then you have another side of the debate, saying hey, you broke the rules, you came here without permission, and that’s not fair. You need to go through the regular process and get on line with everybody else. So just a lot of emotion surrounding it right now.

Tavis: We’ve talked about this subtitle, the big money, the fences, and the drones that you argue are not making us safer. Let me talk now about the issue you just raised, which is how this issue of border security has become such a political football.

Can you ever imagine when this issue will not be a political football? It seems to me that if that could ever be imagined, it’s only going to happen if there is an alliance that can be built between the left and the right, the Republicans and the Democrats in Washington, to focus on those first two things.

Longmire: Sure.

Tavis: Because it seems to me on those first two things, there’s no debate.

Longmire: Well you’d be surprised.

Tavis: Maybe I’m wrong, yeah.

Longmire: You’d be surprised. There’s -

Tavis: Don’t we want to catch terrorists? Don’t we want to stop drug smugglers? So what’s the debate about on the first two/

Longmire: In my opinion, especially on the issue of the drug smugglers, there’s a huge debate going on over whether or not it even poses a national security threat.

Tavis: Ah.

Longmire: If you take a look at the last seven State of the Union addresses, and we’re talking about both Republican and Democrat president, not once in, since the violence flared up in Mexico, that was roughly 2004, 2005.

Really, when President Filipe Calderon came into office, former president, in 2006. From 2007 on, not one mention of Mexico or Mexico’s drug war in a single State of the Union address.

If you take a look at the mentions of border security, it is only in direct reference to immigration reform. So I look at the State of the Union address as where the president outlines the legislative priorities and the national priorities.

They’re talking about the economy, talking about Iran, talking about China, and not a mention of our neighbor, one of our biggest allies and our third-largest trading partner, and no mention of the slaughter that’s going on related to drug use and drug abuse every single day, and our drug demand here.

So I think that’s part of the debate, is how big of a problem is it, and I don’t think that Washington is acknowledging that it’s spilling over into the southwest border, how it’s affecting residents disproportionately who live in the southwest border.

You talk to ranchers, you talk to folks that are living in the more rural areas, you talk to border sheriffs, and you’ve got people, not just immigrants, but drug smugglers that are tearing up private property and trespassing every single day. That costs us a lot of money.

Tavis: So what you’re telling me is on those three big issues, the smugglers, the terrorists, and the immigrants, you’re not hopeful that anything is going to get done in Washington in the short term.

Longmire: Not in the short term, but in the long term and especially on the immigration issue, you take a look at our own national history. There was a time when the Italians, when the Irish were viewed as second and third-class citizens.

Maybe that’s where we are right now. Maybe it’ll take another five, 10, 20 years, but the Latino community in the United States is growing, and it’s a very, very large voice, and it’s not going to be – it’s a voice that’s going to be heard, one way or another.

Tavis: The new text from Sylvia Longmire is called “Border Insecurity: Why Big Money, Fences, and Drones Aren’t Making Us Safer. Sylvia, thanks for your work and thanks for the text.

Longmire: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Tavis: Good to have you on.

Longmire: Thanks.

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Last modified: May 2, 2014 at 4:44 pm