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Columns : Editorial

The Soft Underbelly

February 01, 2003  |  by - Also by this author

This month in our Web Poll we asked, How can we best improve homeland security? One of the choices was "Close our borders," and many of you chose it.

Civil libertarians reading the results of the poll on page 10 would argue that it is indicative of xenophobic beliefs among the nation's law enforcement officers. But before they say that, they should take a look at what's really going on at the borders.

First let's look North. Canada and the United States have been at peace since the 1846 Treaty of Oregon. And in the more than 150 years since, the northern border has come to be known as the friendliest border in the world. Unfortunately, Al Qaeda and associated Islamist groups have taken advantage of that friendship.

For example, in 1999, Al Qaeda tried to ring in the new millennium by blowing up Los Angeles International Airport. The plot was foiled when Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam was captured as he tried to cross into the United States from Canada.

Experts say there's good reason why terrorists choose Canada as a path for entry into the U.S. Many hold forged or legitimate British passports and can move freely into the Great White North under the commonwealth agreements between Mother England and her former colonies. In addition, Canada is home to a sizable Muslim population, it reportedly hosts more than 50 known terrorist organizations, and it shares an approximately 4,000-mile, loosely patrolled border with the "Great Satan."

And if you're alarmed at the porous nature of our northern border, then the situation to the south may cost you some sleep.

Recent deterrence efforts by the U.S. Border Patrol in California and Texas have funneled much of the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and people into southern Arizona. The result is that the ranches and federal lands along the sparsely populated Arizona-Mexico border have become a war zone.

They've also become a favorite smuggling route for "coyotes" bringing OTMs into the United States. OTM is the Border Patrol's unofficial designation for illegal aliens from countries "other than Mexico." Most of these people are from Central America, but Asians, South Asians, Europeans, and Arabs are also being scooped up in the Border Patrol's leaky nets.

Of course, just because Arabs are coming over the border from Mexico doesn't necessarily mean that they are planning nefarious action. The overwhelming majority of Arabs crossing the border from Mexico are-like most people who make that extremely dangerous trek-just looking for a better life. But what about those who are carrying explosives instead of their meager belongings in their backpacks?

The Mexican border is clearly out of control, and the Border Patrol and Mexican authorities lack the resources and will to police it. This is why some groups have floated the idea of militarizing the southern border.

But it's unlikely to happen. The U.S. military is currently stretched terribly thin, and militarizing the border with Mexico would stifle NAFTA and other initiatives aimed at improving Mexico's economy, cementing Mexican democracy, and making our neighbor to the south a better place to live. Plus, it's just not practical.

Perhaps a more viable solution to the border security problem has been proposed by the Mexican government. President Vicente Fox has proposed to President Bush that the United States grant "guest worker" and legal resident status to Mexicans who want to cross the border to work in the United States. This would free up the Border Patrol to concentrate on narco traffickers and Al Qaeda. The idea has some merit, and Bush is mulling it, but it's really problematic. There are tax issues, citizenship issues, and other concerns that make it no more practical than militarizing the border.

So what is the answer? There may not be one. No country has ever been able to secure its borders unless it was an island. The Chinese tried in vain to keep out the Mongols with the Great Wall. The Mongols just went around it.

The unfortunate truth is that the 6,000 miles of territory along the Mexican and Canadian borders will always be breaches in the walls of "Fortress America." And this is why it's critically important that American law enforcement officers cultivate good working relationships with their counterparts in Mexico and Canada. We desperately need their help because without it, "homeland security" is a bad joke.

Tags: Homeland Security, U.S.-Mexico Border, Border Patrol Agents


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