By Douglas Doan

For border communities along the Mexican-US border, the Obama Administration’s new strategy to improve security along the US-Mexican border is being received with mixed emotions.   On the plus side, it is great to see that border issues are once again rising to the top of the national agenda and getting the President and senior advisors’ full attention on the escalating drug related violence.

Secretary of State Clinton just went to Mexico and so has Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, who has also recently directed DHS to implement some new procedures along the border.  Let’s hope the result of all these efforts will help bring tangible solutions to the breakdown in security along the border and to the growing problems experienced by legitimate traders and travelers trying to cross the border.

Above all, let’s hope that the Administration’s attention will not waver and these new efforts simply disappear as so many similar efforts have in the past. If that is the case, thhat would only leave the border problems either get worse, or stay largely intact.  Long ago, border communities learned to view these sorts of actions with a healthy dose of skepticism.  Announcements may be fine, but what folks along the border want to see are real tangible changes.

One of the best measures that Secretary Napolitano announced is a new intent to work more closely with Mexico by increasing the number of DHS liaison officers that will be working directly with their counterparts in Mexico.  This will help to both facilitate the flow of legitimate trade and travel, and to improve security at the same time.  It is a great idea that, if allowed to develop, could produce results.

The Secretary’s new idea will also face significant resistance from senior officers at CBP who have long resisted attempts to build better cooperative relationships with Mexican officials.  Although more concerned with corruption, CBP headquarters has torpedoed similar efforts in the past.

Just a few short years ago, Secretary Chertoff attempted something quite similar, called the “Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) of North America”.   SPP developed an entire detailed agenda of mutual cooperative efforts for the US, Mexico, and Canada that, once implemented, would fundamentally improve trade and security.

Cargo security initiatives were developed, public- private partnerships calling for greater investments from private companies were envisioned, security and reporting standards were outlined to make data sharing efforts more efficient, cooperative efforts on Global heath concerns and transnational epidemics were outlined, and so on.  In fact, some 200 different and specific action items for joint cooperation were hammered out in a series of multilateral negotiations between US, Mexican and Canadian counterparts.   With great fanfare and bold statements from the White House, the SPP program was launched.  And, just as quickly, it died.

Secretary Chertoff allowed senior leaders CBP to undercut, erode and then completely forget about ever implementing any of the SPP.  To them, the dangers and risks of building a more cooperative relationship with Mexico was simply unacceptable and so they dug in their heels and resisted.

Secretary Chertoff, perhaps more interested in announcing changes to the border policy, than in achieving real success, soon gave up.  And so, within a very short period of time, the SPP faded into history and was lost forever.

What a pity.  As Secretary Napolitano now attempts to reinvigorate innovation along the border, she inherits a great deal of skepticism and missed opportunities.  For example, Napolitano’s call for increased outbound inspections to better interdict the flow of guns and money bound for Mexican drug cartels is a great ambition.  But, this initiative will depend largely on cooperative efforts with Mexico to succeed.  As everyone in the trade community knows too well, CBP does not have enough capacity to expand inspections of outbound traffic.  Indeed, today, outbound travel is rarely inspected at all by CBP officers who spend all of their time and effort inspecting north bound cargo and travelers crossing into the US.

Complicating the problem is the fact that CBP is unable to quickly inspect and process north bound traffic efficiently and often legitimate trade and travel is caught in long lines and snarled traffic as they wait before being able to cross.  The idea that CBP will move resources and effort  from inbound services, where cargo and travelers are already facing long delays to outbound lanes, will mostly likely result in an even longer delay for inbound cargo and trade.   Exacerbating the already simmering trade frictions along the border and making it more difficult and expensive for legitimate trade and travel to cross is perhaps the worst possible thing our government can do during the economic crisis.  Indeed, any rebound in the US economy will depend upon increased trade, so adding new trade frictions along the border is idiotic.

Ironically, the single best solution to this dilemma is to help Mexican officials by providing better training, equipment and cooperation to better interdict contraband from the US from ever clearing Mexican customs.  However, this is the point where we see the unintended consequences of a decade long determination from CBP leaders to forego any attempts to build more cooperative efforts among local CBP and Mexican Customs officials at the border.

Those working and living along the US-Mexican border are hopeful that the new attention of the Administration will finally solve the long simmering problems, improved security and eliminate any trade frictions.  Secretary Napolitano is to be commended for making a new effort, outlining some innovative solutions, and going to Mexico to talk directly with her counterparts in the effort to coordinate a bilateral approach to this problem.

Let’s only hope that she avoids mistakes of the past and understands that to get a grip on the border, she must first get a grip on her own department and the senior leadership at CBP that has undermined similar efforts in the past.

Douglas Doan is a former DHS official in Private Sector Office.  He served on the official U.S. Delegation responsible for negotiations with Mexico and Canada on the Security and Prosperity Plan and is now a member of the Border Trade Alliance Board of Directors.