Aspen forum: Tough sell for Homeland Security on the state of U.S.-Mexico border
July 1, 2010
ASPEN – Officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had a tough time convincing crowds at the Aspen Security Forum this week that America’s border with Mexico is more secure than ever.
There were audible murmurs of disbelief from the audience Tuesday when Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute noted that her boss, Secretary Janet Napolitano, has said “many, many times, the southern border has never been more secure than it is today.”
There are improvements that must be made to “strengthen areas that need to be strengthened,” Lute conceded. But she contended Homeland Security has made significant progress and will continue efforts to keep dangerous people and goods out of the country while expediting legitimate trade and travel.
“We are working every day to ensure the security of the southern border,” Lute said.
A Newsweek reporter told Lute he was “baffled” by the department’s claim the border is secure and questioned why Arizona government officials implemented their own efforts to reduce illegal entry if the federal government’s efforts were so effective.
Lute said she couldn’t speak for the Arizona Legislature. Homeland Security’s efforts to beef up security include “the number of resources that have been committed to the border, the level and sophistication of processes that we are applying at the border, [and] the training and qualifications of border agents,” she said. “There is more fence then there has ever been before, there is great use of technology and processes.”
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“But there are still people coming across,” responded Jeanne Meserve, a CNN reporter and moderator for Lute’s presentation. Meserve said it appears “significant progress” still needs to be made at the borders.
Lute ended that part of the discussion by saying, “It’s a constant challenge. You’re never done securing your border.”
In a panel discussion about border security on Wednesday, two additional Homeland Security officials battled skepticism from the audience when they repeated claims that border security is vastly improved.
“We’re a lot better off than we were a few years ago,” said Robert Mocny, director of the U.S.-VISIT program for the Department of Homeland Security.
Technological advances, such as iris scans and thorough fingerprinting that ties a person to a passport or visa, has improved security, Mocny said. And the U.S. government has significantly more data on persons who pose potential threats after stepping up tracking procedures since Sept. 11.
“We’re making a lot of progress,” he said.
Panel moderator Michelle Cottle of The New Republic said Homeland Security is facing a PR battle trying to convince the public that borders are more secure.
A near disaster last Christmas was cited numerous times at the Security Forum as an example that efforts to secure the country’s borders have failed. A terrorist boarded a Northwest Airlines plane in Amsterdam intending to blow up the Detroit-bound flight. The effort failed when the explosive substance concealed in his underwear failed to detonate.
The suspect was on a U.S. government list of persons with possible ties to terrorists, but he wasn’t on the “no-fly list,” which would have prohibited him from boarding a flight to the states.
The debate over the border with Mexico has centered more on entry of illegal workers and drug smuggling.
“The perception is not that the southern border in particular is any more secure than it has been,” Cottle said.
Mark S. Borkowski, executive director of Homeland Security’s Secure Border Initiative, Customs and Border Protection, said measuring success is difficult but not impossible. The number of people apprehended entering the country illegally at the southern border is down because attempted crossings are down, he said. Critics claim fewer people are trying to cross the border because there aren’t any jobs in the United States right now – but the trend started before the recession, Borkowski said.
Recent clashes between border patrol agents and illegal aliens also supply vital information, he said.
“The increases in violence and types of violence represent a reaction to the fact that it’s harder to get across the border,” Borkowski said. “So there are some metrics that suggest the border is more secure than it’s ever been.”