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The Failed Border Security Initiative


Something isn’t working.

In late 2005 Michael Chertoff, the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), launched the “Secure Border Initiative” as the umbrella program for border control and immigration enforcement. The announced goal of SBI, described as “a comprehensive multiyear plan to secure America’s borders and reduce illegal migration,” was to gain “operational control of both the northern and southern borders within five years.”

Now, in response to calls for more border security by regional politicians and fears of a spillover of Mexico’s drug-related violence, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has announced a renewed operational focus on southwest border security. The new initiative, “The Southwest Border: The Way Ahead,” continues to meet recent increases of cartel violence in Mexico with strong action and solidified coordination with federal, state, local, tribal, and Mexican authorities.

SBI benefited from an infusion of new congressional funding initiatives in 2005 and 2006 for the border wall, the virtual fence, more Border Patrol agents, and more detention beds. The new initiative, in contrast, will largely rely on redeploying existing personnel and resources to the border. It emphasizes increased collaboration between federal and local law enforcement agencies to rid the country of “criminal aliens” and to interdict flows of drugs and arms.

Risk-Based Security Enforcement

DHS says the new initiative will be based on a “risk-based decision-making process.” All the various DHS initiatives that are part of its SBI umbrella program contend that they are “risk-based.” DHS contends it is protecting the homeland against “dangerous goods and people.”

In practice, however, its array of border control and immigration enforcement programs casts a wide net—with most of the arrests being immigration violators and drug law offenders rather than dangerous criminals. Marijuana leads, by far, the list of illegal drugs seized, even though there is widening consensus, even in the criminal justice community, that marijuana is not a “dangerous good,” especially when compared with cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines.

A key component of the new border security initiative is the Border Enforcement Security Taskforce (BEST), which brings together federal and local law enforcement agencies, along with Mexican officials, in a collaborative but Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)-directed effort to deploy teams “where transnational criminal organizations exploit vulnerabilities along the nation’s border.”

DHS is doubling the number of ICE agents on BEST teams throughout the southwest borderlands that will lead transborder criminal investigations. The expansion will allow DHS to “strengthen the program’s ability to dismantle the leadership and supporting infrastructure of the criminal organizations responsible for perpetrating violence and illegal activity along our borders and in the nation’s interior.”

The achievements of the existing BEST teams don’t support ICE declarations that their investigation and prosecutions are “risk-based.” The existing 95 members of BEST teams in the Southwest were responsible for 1,000 criminal arrests in 2008, but most of its arrests—1,256—were for administrative violations, presumably transgressions of immigration law. Marijuana seizures topped the list of drugs confiscated. BEST seized 42,400 lbs. of marijuana, 1,803 lbs. of cocaine, and 66 lbs. of heroin.

Operation Stonegarden’s Friendly Forces on the Border

The new border security initiative announced by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in March 2009 stresses DHS collaboration with local law enforcement through a variety of operations. Introducing the new initiative in testimony to the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, DHS Secretary Napolitano said that through Operation Stonegarden DHS will “enhance state, local, and tribal law enforcement operations and assets along the border.”

Operation Stonegarden is a federal assistance program ($60 million in 2009) for local law enforcement that is limited to borderland counties. The assistance is not general funding but for additional personnel and overtime pay for homeland security operations. A major problem, as in all DHS federal/local programs, is that funding is not accompanied with internal regulations specifying exactly what the homeland security funds can be used for.

As a result, Operation Stonegarden recipients can use DHS’ own broad mission—”protecting the nation against dangerous goods and people”—to justify their own extra expenses for picking up local drug users and illegal immigrants. Under Operation Stonegarden, dangerous people are defined as “criminal aliens,” but criminal aliens include all illegal immigrants, according to the operational contract. Similarly, all illegal drugs are included in the search for “dangerous drugs.”

Since the program was initiated shortly after the DHS’s creation, the rationale for the program has evolved—from a “first-responder” to terrorism program to a border security program focused on drugs and illegal immigrants. Officially it is a program of DHS’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide grants to “designated localities to enhance cooperation and coordination among local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in a joint mission to secure the United States borders along routes of ingress …”

The program elapsed in 2005 but was renewed in 2006 under DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. Writing in HS Today, a securities industry magazine, Joshua Filler, the original director of DHS’s local coordination office, applauded the relaunching of the operation, pointing to the example of funding in Maine to explain its counterterrorism objective.

Filler, now the CEO of Filler Security Strategies, wrote:

“While Maine itself isn’t likely to be the target of a terrorist attack or other catastrophic event, it could be used as an infiltration point or launching pad by terrorists to strike other parts of the United States—in fact, that’s essentially what happened on 9/11. If Maine and small northern border states are to receive federal funds, which they should, this is one of the best uses of those funds since it will have the biggest antiterrorist impact with a limited budgetary impact.”

Operation Stonegarden is no longer couched in counterterrorism rhetoric. Basically, it functions as one of the many ICE and Border Patrol programs aimed at increasing cooperation with local police forces, with program recipients being limited to borderland law enforcement agencies. As such, complaints about Operation Stonegarden reflect the kind of criticism leveled against such ICE programs as Operation Community Shield, the 287(g) Program, and Secure Communities, namely that involving local police in immigration enforcement leads to racial profiling and increasing community distrust of law enforcement.

The sheriffs’ departments that receive Operation Stonegarden funding don’t so much focus on the “routes of ingress” into the United States as on the immigrants and illegal drug users in their own communities.

This was the case in Otero County, in southeastern New Mexico, where sheriff deputies used the Stonegarden grant to hunt for illegal immigrants in the Chaparral, a largely Latino settlement on the edge of El Paso. In September 2008 a federal judge issued an injunction barring the sheriff’s department from enforcing immigration laws through Operation Stonegarden.

The injunction specifically bars the department from “engaging in unlawful discriminatory activities and racial profiling for the purpose of identifying and apprehending undocumented and illegal immigrants pursuant to Operation Stonegarden.” In addition, the order bars the department from “unlawful retaliation, coercion, harassment, threats, and intimidation,” and tells the department not to conduct “unlawful community-wide raids targeted at low-income Latino residents in Otero County.”

In addition to receiving Operation Stonegarden funding, Otero County is cashing in on the immigrant crackdown boom by way of two county-owned prisons that house ICE and U.S. Marshall Service detainees. Both are operated by Management & Training Corporation, a Utah-based private prison firm.

While the founding premise of Operation Stonegarden was that the borderlands—north and south—were the gateway regions for potential terrorists and therefore needed increased vigilance, the practice of involving local police has focused DHS resources on borderland residents at least as much as transients.

The program is also controversial in the northern borderlands, where local police have become increasingly involved in the Border Patrol’s crackdown on immigrants and illegal drugs. In Washington State, a county sheriff has declined Stonegarden funding, saying that immigration law enforcement is not a public safety priority. The sheriff in Jefferson County in Washington, near the northern border, declined to apply for a Stonegarden grant in 2009.

Sheriff Michael Brasfield complained that the language in the grant application that described undocumented immigrants as “criminal” was insensitive and felt the overall document was unacceptable. “Unfortunately, the inclusion of language describing illegal aliens as ‘criminal aliens’ that ‘are drawn here by criminal activities,’ coupled with the requirement that participating agencies (described as ‘Friendly Forces’) agree to detain illegal aliens and turn them over to the Border Patrol, makes the overall document unacceptable,” Brasfield wrote in his Jan. 12 letter.

Echoing the common complaint that Border Patrol and local police involved in joint operations are intruding into the lives of community members in the Bellingham, Washington area, activist Rosalinda Guillen told a local TV station, “It’s almost like they’re looking for something to do and we’re the targets.”


The new Border Security Initiative, announced in response to the alarm about spill-over violence from Mexico, will bring more personnel to the southwest border and place additional technology at strategic locations in order to crack down on the illegal activities that fuel the drug war in Mexico.

It’s another crackdown initiative from DHS, and it will mean more canine teams at borderland checkpoints, a stepped-up “criminal alien” dragnet, and expanded cooperation with local police. DHS assures that the new deployment will be the result of a “risk-based decision-making process.”

“The Way Ahead” is a two-pronged strategy. DHS says that the new crackdown on the northern side of the border will complement “Mexico’s crackdown campaign against drug cartels in Mexico.”

With this new deployment of personnel and resources, the border will assuredly become more secure when measured by the usual metrics of success in the drug war and the immigrant crackdown. Soon, the Border Patrol will be erecting new billboards at checkpoints and entry stations that hail the new drug seizures. In forthcoming news releases, the public information office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will boast of the number of criminal aliens arrested and deported. So, too, will there be a rash of pronouncements about the number of southbound arms seized at the border.

“The Way Ahead” initiative, despite the likely success indicators, is another front in the long-running war on drugs.

Forty years ago, President Nixon, responding to the alarm about Mexico supplying drugs to America’s youth, launched Operation Intercept along the border to interdict marijuana shipments. That short-lived initiative, which was halted largely because of Mexican government complaints about long lines of traffic at the border, was the opening shot of the “war on drugs” of the new Republican administration.

Started as a unilateral offensive, the “war on drugs” has since gone global—and bilateral, in the case of Mexico. The last four decades have seen a long string of tactical victories but year after year of strategic defeat despite increased international cooperation. The endless string of achievements—number of acres eradicated, bundles of drugs seized, traffickers arrested, etc.—underscores the continuing failure of the drug war.

Rather than using the drug-related violence in Mexico as an opportunity to point to the failure of the crackdown approach to the drug problem, the Obama administration has reaffirmed U.S. support for the military-led drug crackdown in Mexico and authorized the redeployment of DHS resources and personnel along the border to fight the war and simultaneously contain its violence.

Not only does the new DHS initiative constitute yet another front in the failed drug war, it also incorporates the systemic failures of the U.S. crackdown on immigrants and crime. By joining the various crackdowns—U.S. drug war crackdown in Mexico, immigrant crackdown, drug war at home, and “get-tough” law enforcement—the DHS is compounding the problems of all these mounting crackdowns.

It’s a crackdown-compounded, and follows old paths rather than pointing to a way ahead.

TOM BARRY directs the TransBorder Project of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC. He blogs at borderlinesblog.

Tom Barry directs the Transborder Program at the Center for International Policy and is a contributor to the Americas Program

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