U.S. Border Security
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U.S. Border Security

The concept of border security in the United States of America shares a complex relationship with the persistent threat of terrorism. Border security includes the protection of land borders, ports, and airports. The relationship is unique in the sense that the federal government must constantly reevaluate and tweak its border security policy to address the perceived threats posed to the United States through the form of human terrorism or the smuggling and detonation of a weapon of mass destruction.

Historical context

Immediately after the events of September 11, 2001, the Federal Government placed a higher priority on obvious aspects of homeland security, such as intelligence reform, as opposed to border security. However, the government as well as the American public eventually reasoned that in order for a high-magnitude attack like September 11 to occur, something had to be seriously wrong with the border security apparatuses that were in place at the time. After all, every single one of the terrorist hijackers on September 11 had been a recipient of a temporary U.S tourist visa,[1] which means they were legally allowed to be in the United States. If nineteen men who were committed to causing harm to Americans were capable of getting past the government screening restrictions that were in place, one could only imagine how great of a threat to America was posed by the largely unchecked 3,017-mile (4,855 km) long Canada-US border, the 1,933-mile (3,111 km) long Mexico-US border, and the many unsecured ports.[2] However, the American public also questions why cracking down on illegal entries will hinder the ability of terrorists who enter the country legally.

Ever since September 11, many actions have been taken to improve border security in the United States. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 as well as the implementation of many new policies and procedures (both classified and unclassified) has without a doubt made America's borders, ports, and airports safer than they were in 2001. However, there is no question that the threats posed by terrorism via America's land borders, ports, and airports still exist; and there are still questions as to whether the United States is truly safe from another attack.

Threats of terrorism

Land borders

The sheer sizes of both the Canada-US and Mexico-US borders present the Federal Government's security forces with challenges with regards to their ability to protect the homeland. According to a 2004 report from the Congressional Research Service, there are "great difficulties in securing the many points through which people and goods may enter legally, and the thousands of miles of 'lines', thinly guarded stretches of coasts and land borders which entry is illegal."[3]

Given the phenomenon of undocumented migration at the U.S.-Mexico border, some government officials and political candidates have made public statements referring to the threat of terrorists crossing the Southwest border.[4][5] However, as the Washington Office on Latin America's Border Fact Check blog has pointed out, the Mexico section of the State Department's 2012 Country Reports on Terrorism notes that "No known international terrorist organization had an operational presence in Mexico and no terrorist group targeted U.S. citizens in or from Mexican territory.",[6] and in 2011 the Department of Homeland Security affirmed that it did not have "any credible information on terrorist groups operating along the Southwest border."[7]


The Federal Government faces threats to national security through its many ports. As part of her testimony at a Congressional Hearing on container security, JayEtta Hecker, Director for Physical Infrastructure Issues at the Government Accountability Office, said "drugs and illegal aliens are routinely smuggled into this country, not only in small boats but also hidden among otherwise legitimate cargoes on large commercial ships. These same pathways are available for exploitation by a terrorist organization or any nation or person wishing to attack us surreptitiously."[8] Ms. Hecker's testimony also touched on the fact that the sheer number of cargo containers that enter the United States augments this threat.[9] According to the March 2008 edition of Scientific American, more than 42 million 20-foot (6.1 m) containers enter American ports each year.[10]


More than 87 million people enter the U.S. every year through airports, which makes them a primary point of entry for potential terrorists.[original research?] For example, in May 2012, the C.I.A. revealed that it uncovered a plot to bring down a commercial plane using explosive devices. According to the C.I.A. these plans belonged to members of Al Qaeda.[11][][12]

The story of Ra'ed al-Banna demonstrates that the threat of an attack of this manner still exists.[need quotation to verify]

Current policies and security mechanisms

Land borders

In a 2008 article for the Manhattan Institute, Rudolph Giuliani claimed that border security is one of the most critical issues facing the United States today and should by monitored by a single organization that embraced CompStat, the organizational philosophy of the NYPD.[13] A myriad of agencies guard America's land borders, including the United States Border Patrol, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement(ICE), the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Guard.[14]

The Department of Homeland Security has completed nearly 700 miles of fencing along the borders.[15] The Department of Homeland Security have reported that 20,700 border patrol agents in 2011.[15][16] In addition, the Border Patrol now has more than 18,300 agents deployed on both the southern and northern border.[16] The Department of Homeland Security uses technology along the border such as unattended ground sensors, truck-mounted mobile surveillance systems, remote video surveillance systems, unmanned aerial systems, fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft,[16] and the Augmented Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS).[17]


From 2001 to 2006, the Federal Government increased funding for port security by 700%.[18] This increase in funding allowed the Department of Homeland Security to implement a defense in depth against external threats. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard, Terminal Operator, and the Port Authority shared responsibility for providing security at American ports. In 2006, those agencies screened all cargo entering the country.[18] U.S. Customs and Border Patrol utilized X-ray, gamma ray machines, and radiation detection devices to screen cargo, operating over 680 radiation portal monitors and over 170 large scale non-intrusive inspection devices. In addition, there were more than 600 canine teams that could "identify narcotics, bulk currency, human beings, explosives, agricultural pests, and chemical weapons" working U.S. ports of entry.[18]


Airport security mechanisms must be quick, efficient, and effective due to the massive numbers of travelers, the Department of Homeland Security has implemented the Automated Targeting System, a data mining program. The Automated Targeting System works by collecting information from airlines such as passport data, credit card numbers, and identity information. That information is then run against a list of known terrorists, phone numbers connected to terrorist cells, and other pertinent intelligence data.[19]

On November 19, 2001, the United States passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, creating the Transportation Security AdministrationTSA, and requiring airlines to give information of all U.S. bound travelers to the Department of Homeland Security. This data is fed into the Automated Targeting System[20] and helps TSA, FBI, CIA, and other organizations to create the Selectee and No Fly List.

In addition to the ATS System, another mechanism to deter terrorists is utilized in case they are not detected by the flagging protocols. Federal Air Marshals are the law enforcement branch of the Transportation Security Administration. They fly either in uniform or incognito and act as the law enforcement while on board to protect passengers and crew members from criminals and terrorists.[21]

The Secondary Security Screening Selection system flags passengers for extra surveillance while in the airport but does not prohibit them from flying. These individuals, often referred to as "selectees", are pulled aside at security checkpoints and searched thoroughly. Their luggage may be hand searched. Individuals are added to the lists through airport screening processes. Individuals are potentially flagged if they have purchased a ticket in cash, purchased a ticket within the previous 24 hours, purchased a one-way ticket, or arrived with no baggage.[22]

Starting in March 2010, the TSA begin a wide-scale deployment of Full body scanners, in addition to metal detectors, to physically screen airline passengers.[23]

Effectiveness of US-Mexico Border Security Policies

Some evidence exists that past border security efforts have been successful. Between 2010 and 2012, DHS seized almost three quarters more money, over a third more narcotics, and nearly double the weapons seized between 2006 and 2008 along the Southwest border.[24] Furthermore, due to the increased border security, border cities have become some of the safest in the United States. Southwest border states have experienced an average 40% drop in violent crime rates, and the 4 major cities with the lowest crime rates in the US are all in border states.[24]


The No Fly List, a comprehensive list of individuals prohibited from flying into or out of the United States, has exponentially grown in size. The List existed before 9/11 but only contained the names of 16 people and now lists over one million names. The List includes high-profile individuals such as the Bolivian President and other foreign dignitaries. The List still contains 14 out of the 19 September 11 hijackers and several other deceased individuals.[25]

The system occasionally leads to a "false positive" which is the accidental flagging of individuals that have similar names to suspected terrorists or are on the List for illegitimate reason. In some cases, children under the age of five have been flagged as suspects. It contains many common names such as Gary Smith or Robert Johnson which makes traveling very difficult for all individuals with that name. Several U.S. congressmen have name matches on the list including Senator Ted Kennedy, who has subsequently been stopped at airports. The List does not include the names of individuals involved in the liquid explosive terrorist attack attempt. TSA also reported that some of the names of the most dangerous terrorists are not on the list in case the List is leaked. Daniel Brown, a U.S. Marine returning from Iraq, was denied entry into the United States because his name matched one on the list. He later found out that he had been flagged on a previous flight for having gunpowder residue on his boots which was likely acquired during an earlier tour of duty in Iraq.[26]

As an alternative to a full body scan, airline passengers can opt for a pat down.

See also


  1. ^ "Identity and Immigration Status of 9/11 Terrorists". Federation for American Immigration Reform. February 2004. Retrieved 2011.
  2. ^ "Background: U.S. Land Border Crossing Updated Procedures". US Department of Homeland Security. September 16, 2008. Retrieved 2011. Beginning January 31, 2008 the Department of Homeland Security is: 1. Ending oral declarations at the border, except in extraordinary situations, 2. Accepting a list of about two dozen types of documents at the border instead of the over 8,000 documents currently being accepted
  3. ^ Frittelli, John F. (2005). Port and Maritime Security: Background and Issues for Congress (PDF). Congressional Research Service. Library of Congress. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 heightened awareness about the vulnerability to terrorist attack of all modes of transportation. Port security has emerged as a significant part of the overall debate on U.S. homeland security. The overarching issues for Congress are providing oversight on current port security programs and making or responding to proposals to improve port security.
  4. ^ Pallack, Becky. "Grijalva slams Saucedo Mercer on 'Middle Easterner' comments (updated)". Arizona Daily Star. Retrieved 2012.
  5. ^ Isacson, Adam. "Are terrorists crossing the border "from time to time?"". Border Fact Check. Washington Office on Latin America. Retrieved 2012.
  6. ^ "Country Reports on Terrorism: Western Hemisphere Overview". Country Reports on Terrorism. United States Department of State. Retrieved 2012.
  7. ^ Goerdt, Ana. "Do terrorists use the U.S.-Mexico border to enter the United States?". Border Fact Check. Washington Office on Latin America. Retrieved 2012.
  8. ^ Hecker, JayEtta Z. (November 18, 2002). "Container Security: Current Efforts to Detect Nuclear Materials, New Initiatives, and Challenges" (PDF). United States General Accounting Office. United States Government. p. 3. Retrieved 2011. As indispensable as the rapid flow of commerce is, the terrorist attacks of September 11th have served to heighten awareness about the supply system's vulnerability to terrorist actions. Drugs and illegal aliens are routinely smuggled into this country, not only in small boats but also hidden among otherwise legitimate cargoes on large commercial ships. These same pathways are available for exploitation by a terrorist organization or any nation or person wishing to attack us surreptitiously. The Brookings Institution reported in 2002 that a weapon of mass destruction shipped by container or mail could cause damage and disruption costing the economy as much as $1 trillion.3 Port vulnerabilities stem from inadequate security measures as well as from the challenge of monitoring the vast and rapidly increasing volume of cargo, persons, and vessels passing through the ports. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that various assessments of national security have concluded that the nation's ports are far more vulnerable to terrorist attacks than the nation's aviation system, where most of the nation's efforts and resources have been placed since September 11th.
  9. ^ With more than 6 million containers a year entering U.S. ports, examining them all has not been possible. Instead, Customs has acknowledged that its approach relies on reviewing shipping manifests, invoices and other commercial documents, and intelligence leads to target approximately 2 percent of the containers that enter the country nationwide for physical inspection, though the actual percentage varies from port to port.
  10. ^ Cochran, Thomas B.; McKinzie, Matthew G. (March 24, 2008). "Detecting Nuclear Smuggling". Scientific American. Retrieved 2011.
  11. ^ Alcorn, J. (2012, December 5). Airport security. The New York Times.
  12. ^ MacLeod, Scott (March 28, 2005). "A Jihadist's Tale". Time Magazine. Time Inc. Retrieved 2011. After he was denied entry at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport for apparently falsifying details on his visa application, al-Banna's life took a turn that led him down the path of radical Islam and ultimately to join the insurgency against the U.S. in Iraq. His odyssey ended on March 3 when al-Banna's brother Ahmed received a call on his cell phone from a man identifying himself as "one of your brothers from the Arab peninsula"--the term radical Islamists use to signify the core of the Muslim world, centered on the holy city of Mecca. Al-Banna's family says that as far as they knew, Ra'ed was in Saudi Arabia working at a new job. But the voice on the other end sounded Iraqi, Ahmed says. "Congratulations," the caller told him. "Your brother has fallen a martyr."
  13. ^ Giuliani, Rudolph W. (Winter 2008). "The Resilient Society". City Journal. The Manhattan Institute. Retrieved 2011. It's also past time to rethink aviation security and to stop frisking toddlers and grandmothers trying to get onto planes. Instead, good intelligence, behavior analysis, biometrics, and trustedtraveler programs can help speed legitimate travelers through airports. For example, I don't think that the Transportation Security Administration needs to spend much time searching Senator Ted Kennedy before he boards a plane--which is what the TSA did in August 2004 because a person on a watch list had a similar name. The federal Terrorist Watch List, which still has incomplete and inaccurate information, needs a serious cleanup.
  14. ^ "National Guard to Help Secure Southwest Border" May 25, 2010. New York Times. March 25, 2011 <https://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/26/us/26border.html/>.
  15. ^ a b Alden, E., & Roberts, B. (2011, July). Are U.S. borders secure? Retrieved December 7, 2012, from Foreign Affairs Plus website: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67901/edward-alden-and-bryan-roberts/are-us-borders-secure
  16. ^ a b c "Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Fact Sheet". US Departmentr of Homeland Security. October 23, 2008. Archived from the original on March 27, 2011. Retrieved 2011. Each day at America's ports of entry U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers inspect more than 1.1 million travelers, including 340,000 vehicles and over 85,000 shipments of goods approved for entry; process more than 70,000 truck, rail and sea containers; collect more than $88 million in fees, duties, and tariffs; seize more than 5,500 pounds in illegal narcotics; and intercept more than 4,400 agricultural items and pests at ports of entry.
  17. ^ "Inspections and Surveillance Technologies - Extended". US Customs and Border Protection. Department of Homeland Security. May 5, 2005. Archived from the original on April 10, 2010. Retrieved 2011. [ISIS] consist of the Remote Video Surveillance (RVS) camera systems, sensors, and the Integrated Computer Assisted Detection (ICAD) database. ISIS serves to detect intrusion, aid in agent dispatching, and estimating attempts of illegal entry.
  18. ^ a b c "Fact Sheet: Securing U.S. Ports". Department of Homeland Security. February 22, 2006. Archived from the original on March 27, 2011. Retrieved 2011. The Administration has dramatically strengthened port security since 9/11. * Funding has increased by more than 700% since September 11, 2001. * Funding for port security was approximately $259 million in FY 2001. * DHS spent approximately $1.6 billion on port security in FY 2005. Following 9/11, the federal government has implemented a multi-layered defense strategy to keep our ports safe and secure. New technologies have been deployed with additional technologies being developed and $630 million has been provided in grants to our largest ports, including $16.2 million to Baltimore; $32.7 million to Miami; $27.4 million to New Orleans, $43.7 million to New York/New Jersey; and $15.8 million to Philadelphia.
  19. ^ Baker. 7.
  20. ^ Laurance, Castelli. "Privacy Impact Assessment, CBP Automated Targeting System" (PDF). Department of Homeland Security. Retrieved 2011. ATS-Passenger (ATS-P) is the module used at all U.S. airports and seaports receiving international flights and voyages to evaluate passengers and crewmembers prior to arrival or departure. It assists the CBP officer's decision-making process about whether a passenger or crewmember should receive additional screening prior to entry into or departure from the country because the traveler may pose a greater risk for violation of U.S. law. The system analyzes the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) data from TECS, Passenger Name Record (PNR) data from the airlines, TECS crossing data, TECS seizure data, and watched entities. ATS-P processes available information from these databases to develop a risk assessment for each traveler. The risk assessment is based on a set of National- and user-defined rules which are comprised rule sets that pertain to specific operational/tactical objectives or local enforcement efforts.
  21. ^ "TSA: Frequently Asked Questions." TSA. Nov 16, 2008 <"Archived copy". Archived from the original on April 27, 2007. Retrieved 2007.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)>.
  22. ^ "TSA: Mythbuster." Weblog post. TSA Watch List. July 14, 2007. Nov 16, 2008 <http://www.tsa.gov/blog/2008/07/myth-buster-tsas-watch-list-is-more.html>.
  23. ^ "Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT)". TSA. Archived from the original on March 11, 2012. Retrieved 2011.
  24. ^ a b "National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy" (PDF). Office of National Drug Control Policy. 2013. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 18, 2013. Retrieved 2014.
  25. ^ The 9/11 Commission Report : Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. New York: Norton Paperbacks, 2004.
  26. ^ "'No-fly' list delays Marine's Iraq homecoming." Apr 12, 2006. MSNBC. Nov 16, 2008 <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12284855/>.

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