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The hardened border and open border paradoxes

In 2004, political scientist and former US Coast Guard officer   Stephen E. Flynn who at that time served as a senior research fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations think-tank testified for the US Senate about topics as security, immigration and terrorism. His testimony focused mostly on the relations between the USA and Mexico after the 9/11 2001 terrorist attacks. One of the members of US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations was senator Biden.

During his testimony, Flynn used the term “the hardened border paradox” and explained the following:

On the one hand, the hemispheres ¬íeconomic prosperity depends on an open continental system that facilitates the free movement of people and goods. On the other, worries over America¬ís exposure to catastrophic terrorist attacks have transformed homeland security into one of Washington’s leading preoccupations.

According to Flynn, one example of this paradox was that while the USA-Canada-Mexico trade agreement NAFTA was going in the direction of open borders as regarding flows of goods, services, capital and people the opposite direction was taking place concerning controlling US southwest border, illegal immigration, smuggling and terrorism.

By Flynn’s argument, this was a mistake since it means that “security has trumped cross-border facilitation as our abiding interest”. Such actions were based on false beliefs about an “automatic tradeoff between advancing greater degrees of openness to support the movement of legitimate people and goods and the need for more rigorous border controls”.

Another example of the paradox is that “harsh” and “draconian” measures by the US government led to favourable results for terrorists and criminals - the same kind of people that the US government was aiming to suppress and handle.

According to Flynn, such harsh border policy measures also led to incentives for informal arrangements and criminal conspiracies to overcome cross-border barriers to commerce and labour movements.

One of the results was that the border region became “more chaotic”, making it “ideal for exploitation by criminals and terrorists”.

As he stated in his testimony, terrorists and criminals do not just come to the border directly. Instead, such individuals operate by being involved in legal parts of our world such as trade, business and economic interactions. Therefore, Flynn argued that “by deterring, detecting, and intercepting illicit actors would accomplish two things”:

  • It would provide some strategic depth for responding to a threat before it arrived at a critical and congested border crossing.
  • It would allow the ability to segment risk so that people and cargo’s cross-border movements deemed to present a low-risk could be facilitated.

Furthermore, when it comes to the hardened border paradox, Flynn said that:

Stepped-up patrolling and policing of the border may raise the costs of getting to the United States, but it also creates a demand for those who are in the business of arranging the illegal crossings. Migrants who once simply strolled across the border to seek work on the other side, now need professional help.

That help is provided by guides known as coyotes who take migrants to remote border locations or put together increasingly sophisticated smuggling operations at the land border entries. As the coyote business becomes more lucrative, criminal gangs are better positioned to invest in pay-offs of front-line agents.

The prevalence of corruption, in turn, undermines information sharing and operational coordination between U.S. authorities and their Mexican counterparts.

Flynn mentioned at that time that the Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that more than half of the cocaine arriving in the United States came via the southwest border and that “even with the rise in the number of inspectors the U.S. government was facing a needle-in-a-haystack odds as it strives to detect and intercept illicit drugs”.

Thereby, according to Flynn,  hardened borders also transformed the cost-reward structure so sophisticated criminal enterprises replace amateur crooks and corruption issues become more pronounced:

In short, the southwest border’s experience suggests that aggressive border security measures end up contributing to problems that inspired them in the first place.

Open border paradox

After this analysis of the hardened border paradox, Flynn focused on describing a second paradox concerning “open border”. He started by exemplifying with economic interactions and business agreements taking place between USA and Canada.

Another type of what was seen as successful cooperation was regarding security, as in cases of preventing organised crime. One key factor described by Flynn was concerning information sharing where American and Canadian law-enforcement officers at local, state/province and federal levels were cooperating such manner where: 

The relationships are such that participants sit together and share information in much the same way they might at a roll call if they all belonged to the same police precinct.

A recent problem that arose was the contemporary situation influenced by the aftermaths of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA. Before that, for around 20 years “the episodic attention directed at the northern border was primarily centred around efforts to minimise any source of administrative friction that added to cost and delay of legitimate commerce”.

Flynn stated that “the notion of the 49th parallel as a security issue is a recent phenomenon that burst into the limelight just prior to the millennium” where the catalyst was the December 1999 arrest of an Algerian terrorist with ties to Osama bin Laden in Port Angeles, Washington.

Ahmed Ressam who arrived on board a ferry from Vancouver in a passenger car with a trunk full of bomb-making materials and was stopped after being interviewed by a border agent. 

His arrest ‘turned into near panic immediately following the September 11 attacks” when worries about the possibility of additional attacks led to the effective sealing of the border as every truck, car, driver, and passenger came under close examination. For example, by September 13, Daimler-Chrysler announced they would have to close an assembling plant on the following day because their supplies were stuck on the north side of the border.

Flynn concluded that “embracing openness and advancing homeland security need not be an "either-or" proposition if Washington is willing to apply the lessons it has drawn from its northern border to Mexico and the broader global community.” The key was in advancing greater bilateral integration while managing important safety, security, and other public policy interests. He proposed that the following could be done:

  • Developing the means to validate in advance the overwhelming majority of the people and goods that cross the border as law-abiding and low risk.
  • Enhancing the means of federal agents to target and intercept inbound high-risk people and goods.
  • Accomplishing the first is key to succeeding at the second since there will always be limits on agents’ time and resources available for agents to conduct investigations and inspections.

For Flynn, the case against traditional border management practices such as those pursued along the border with Mexico “had been already made by the close of the last century for anyone willing to look at objectively at the yawning gap between enforcement rhetoric and reality” and that “stepped-up efforts to harden the border are a flawed” and counterproductive, as approacher to advance important security and public policy interests. He argued that:

Transforming how the border is managed is an essential step towards assuring the long-term sustainability of hemispheric economic integration within the context of the transformed security environment of the post-9-11 world.

A lack of smart border security?

One part of the US-Canada Partnership (CUSP) agenda before 2001 was also to create “a smart border”, something that especially was promoted by the Canadian foreign minister John Manley and the new White House Director of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge.  This led to the Smart Border Action Plan announced in December 2001, by declaring that:

Public Security and economic security are mutually reinforcing. By working together to develop a zone of confidence against terrorist activity, we create a unique opportunity to build a smart border for the 21st century; a border that securely facilitates the free flow of people and commerce; a border that reflects the largest trading relationship in the world.  

Flynn concluded that efforts to harden the border between the USA and Canada  have been assessed to be self-defeating not just in economic terms, but in security terms. For example, by closing the border in the wake of a terrorist attack only reinforced the military value of engaging in such attacks where the US government imposed a blockade on its own economy.

Flynn concluded that “the most important reason to get border management right is to satisfy what is arguably the most critical homeland security imperative of our time” also because, without a committed effort to advance a bilateral approach to border management, terrorists will continue to have ample opportunity to bring their battles to American streets. 

Therefore, it would be interesting to analyse if similar problems are existing and similar conclusions can be made regarding Europe and Africa. 



Author: Vladan Lausevic is a social and policy entrepreneur. He is a Swedish with much interest in international security and inter - regional integration.


Photo credit: Total Slovania News

2021-03-16 19:15:26

Source: ILAPI