In the 21st Century, Borders Aren’t Walls

By Matthew Wein
Tuesday, March 29, 2016, 8:21 AM

Election-year immigration talk has turned, as it often does, to focus on a wall across our southern border as a centerpiece to security and foreign policy. And the recent attacks in Brussels, San Bernardino, Ankara and Paris—not to mention the full-fledged refugee crisis unfolding across the Middle East, North Africa, and into Europe—have also returned borders to the national and international conversation. But the problem with solutions like walls, are that such proposals conflate the function of a physical border with much larger and more complex notions of a border as a means of separation between two countries. Far from actually securing anything, a wall would serve as nothing more than a 1,000-mile long symbol of the lack of understanding of how people and goods move across borders in the 21st century.

Physical borders are, of course, necessary. They establish sovereignty and serve as limited access control points. But they have inherent limitations in the modern age. Nearly half of the 11 million illegal immigrants in America today entered the country legally and simply overstayed their visas. Not only does a wall do nothing to stop that, but a large number of those overstays likely entered the United States via an airport, and not a land border where the U.S. physically abuts Canada or Mexico.

More importantly, a physical border is not a barrier to stop the kind of attempted terrorism we saw on Christmas Day in 2009. There, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, also known as the Underwear Bomber, attempted to detonate a bomb as his flight descended into Detroit. Based on already known information, U.S. Customs agents had flagged him as a person of interest to speak with once he deplaned in Detroit, but that was obviously too late. To attackers like Abdulmutallab, the border is meaningless. Customs agents or foreign partners needed to interact with him more before he departed Amsterdam for America because the border itself is not a defense mechanism.

And this isn’t only true for people. A similar situation played out in 2010 when Al Qaeda bomb-makers attempted to hide explosives in printer cartridges and send them in the belly of commercial airliners to America set to explode mid-flight. Here too the border, with or without a wall, would make no difference. Instead, information obtained prior to departure foiled the plot.

Non-physical border controls have significantly expanded over the past 5 years, in part as a response to these and other incidents. The network of legal, policy, and operational mechanisms that make up the non-physical border serve as a layered system of defense, and effectively shift defensive borders away from our shores. It is these systems, and not walls, which serve as the first line of defense against terrorists, criminals, and intending illegal immigrants. One such layer is the Visa Waiver Program, which admits travelers from 38 approved countries to the United States without a visa, provided they receive prior approval from the Customs and Border Protection-run Electronic System for Travel Authorization. This gives CBP the ability to deny a waiver days before a traveler ever reaches an airport and could require that a suspicious individual visit an embassy to apply for a visa in person before travelling to the United States.

Global Entry is another travel facilitation program, part of a network available to Americans and select other nationals. In total over 3 million travelers enrolled in these trusted-traveler programs as of the end of 2014. Not only do these programs increase the throughput at airports and other ports of entry but they also provide DHS with information on travelers before they even book their travel, reducing the haystack of information through which analysts and agents can search for mala fide travelers. These programs, along with Pre-Clearance and the Immigration Advisory Program are the kind of innovative border control ideas that can actually secure our broader border and immigration system. It is these systems, and not walls, which merit additional investments of funding, manpower, and new ideas.

Of course, these kinds of security programs are only half of the equation in maintaining border integrity. The other half depends on lowering the numbers of travelers who intend to enter the United States illegally or overstay their visas. To address these issues, the U.S. must employ a variety of policy tools aimed at improving economic conditions and institutional capacity in origin countries in order to decrease the supply of travelers who wish to enter or remain in America by illegal means. Although improving economic conditions is an obvious step, the importance of addressing institutional capacity may be less apparent. But in transit countries like Mexico, native law enforcement must be able to interdict and repatriate those mala fide travelers passing through to the United States. And law enforcement in those intermediate countries must be capable of returning such travelers and of upholding the rule of international and domestic law in an even-handed manner.

The physical border cannot address economic migrants either—only increased economic opportunities and strengthened rule of law globally can decrease the attractiveness of the dangerous journey that many are willing to risk for a better life. And we must all recognize and address the costs of these perilous voyages to migrants, and implement a compassionate and common sense policy response.

As for the wall that presidential candidate Donald Trump and others propose constructing along our Southern border, I would not be the first to point out that all it would take to defeat such a wall is a slightly taller ladder. The simplistic wall solution ignores that often by the time an economic migrant has decided that they intend to cross a border for better opportunities, the battle is lost. And if committed terrorists reach our shores, it may be too late to stop them.

The importance of a comprehensive and layered strategy can be seen not only at our southern border but in places like eastern and southern Europe and even with East African migration to Israel. These strategies allow not only for necessary controls on economic migration but also provide opportunities to stop terrorism, money laundering, drug trafficking, human trafficking and smuggling, and intellectual property theft.

A wall is not going to deter those seeking a better life, nor those wishing to do us harm. But while practically ineffective, a wall is damaging to a vision of the U.S. as a beacon of freedom and opportunity. Our stature and example to the world in that regard should be a point of national pride. And attracting immigrants makes our country more diverse and more resilient; it is a strength, not a weakness. True, border controls matter and we must continue to work with our foreign partners to better secure our collective nations. But in the modern world of new challenges and sophisticated adversaries, there is simply no room for medieval solutions—be it a moat, drawbridge, or a very high wall.