President Trump’s showdown with Congress over funding to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border makes for potent political theater, but we all know a wall does little to actually enhance border security. In fact, the President’s enforcement strategy is primarily aimed at stopping asylum-seekers and job seekers from crossing the border rather than dangerous criminals. Were the President serious about border security, he would focus his administration’s attention and resources on the transnational criminal cartels who deal drugs, run guns, and launder money. These cartels and the people who run them are the real danger, not the migrants they exploit.
These well-funded and increasingly sophisticated cartels are not going to be stopped by a wall. To begin with, the overwhelming majority of illicit traffic flows through ports of entry—not in the vast stretches of land in between where any wall would be built. Cartel operatives carefully study ports of entry for weaknesses in security and are ready to exploit those weaknesses on short notice. As a result, the cartels know when a corrupt Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer comes on duty, or when the inspection process is being relaxed to speed up traffic. Although this is an inherently risky undertaking, it is far more predictable than attempting to smuggle people or contraband across the border in the middle of the desert. A wall will not stop those efforts.
Border security will be most effectively enhanced by crime-fighting measures that are directed at the cartels themselves rather than the people or contraband they are moving. For instance, disrupting the money-laundering operations which cartels utilize to move their ill-gotten proceeds out of the United States and into Mexico would do far more to shut down threats than any wall. Similarly, modernizing ports of entry to make it more difficult to evade inspections would cut into cartel business, as would cross-border, bi-national criminal investigations focused on putting cartel leaders behind bars.
President Trump’s border wall is a simplistic, one dimensional response to a problem that demands complexity and sophistication. Keeping migrants out of the country who are seeking safe haven, or who are looking to work in industries that have job openings, does nothing to enhance security. Thus far, the administration’s focus has been primarily to deny refuge to those who desperately need it, and to deny U.S. businesses access to the workers they need. If the Trump administration were serious about border security, it would take on the deadly cartels that are responsible for so much of the criminal activity along the border.