Security Debrief is hosting its first online debate after an announcement by the Department of Homeland Security on their plan to secure the border with Mexico. The Fact Sheet, Southwest Border: The Way Ahead, outlines the new activities and spending for specific departments and locations.

Debating the topic will be Contributor, Chad Wolf, along with Guest Contributor Douglas Doan (read his most recent post here).  The debate will be in a point-counterpoint style, with Douglas Doan taking the lead and Chad Wolf offering the rebuttal.

Check back often for updates on the debate. And let the debate begin!

Argument by Douglas Doan:

When President Obama pressed for a huge $ 787 billion stimulus, he declared that the government would especially focus on building and infrastructure projects that would help spur economic growth.  High on that list was a promise of $720 million in new spending for Ports of Entry (POE) along our nation’s borders.  For good reason too, POEs are the nation’s cash registers where nearly $2 billion in trade passes EACH DAY.

Unfortunately, because of  years of underinvestment in the new roads, bridges, and primary inspection booths manned by CBP officers, those cash registers have been clogged and long lines, excessive wait times, and lost productivity have become endemic.  Not too surprisingly, the trade community, border regions, exporters, and Chambers of Commerce, were wildly supportive of the President’s decision to dedicate nearly $1 billion to building more infrastructure at the nation’s POEs.
But those early joys are fading fast.  It has becoming increasingly clear that DHS intends to divert most of the federal funds intended to help alleviate the congestion and long wait times at POEs to other internal priorities.

Acting Commissioner Jayson Ahern
fanned the flames of discontent by indicating that little of the stimulus funding will flow to the busiest POEs with the longest lines and most frustrated travelers.  Instead, Ahern implied that much of the funding will be directed towards new inspection technologies, communications systems, and other border technology.
Put bluntly, for those that hope to see new roads, bridges, and more primary inspection lanes, to handle the nearly tenfold increase in traffic across the border during the last 10 years, there was nothing new.
In his announcement, Ahern did highlight improvements at Nogales, Arizona, and Otay Mesa California, but failed to mention that plans and most of the funding for improvements at those particular POEs was approved by Congress long ago.

What keen observers where hoping to see was an indication that new huge new stimulus funding would result in the construction of new lanes bridges and inspection booths, not just a reminder that projects established long ago will continue.   Adding salt to the wound, Ahern implied that that CBP will concentrate on the smallest POEs, on the Northern border, where traffic is minimal and the impact on trade and commerce is zilch.

The growing realization that little if any of the $720 million dollars reserved for improving border infrastructure is going to add new capacity at our POEs and reduce the long wait times for legitimate trade and travel is a particular blow to the busiest border crossings like those near Detroit or Buffalo.  These crossings are among the most important trade arteries in the world linking our largest trade partner, Canada, and feature  a huge volume of daily trade.

Not long ago, long wait times and traffic snarls of 20 or more miles prompted one frustrated Canadian operator of the Blue Water Bridge called it simply “the Summer from Hell”.  But apparently, no new stimulus funding will be spent in Detroit to help move beleaguered trade, much of it associated with the automobile industry, more quickly.

Instead, almost as a cruel joke, CBP has indicated that improvements to the POE at Los Ebanos are to be anticipated. Los Ebanos, located in Texas, is a wonderful piece of history, a hand operated ferry.  But there is almost no trade that crosses, and the place is essential a quaint tourist destination, where travelers can get a kick out of riding on the last hand operated ferry across the Rio Grande.

And yet, as our auto industry teeters on insolvency, there was no urgent desire within CBP to help improve Detroit productivity be reducing the long wait times and border frustrations which are especially damaging to the automobile industry.  With auto parts and components crossing the border sometimes 20-30 times before final installation, even small improvements at the border would have been economically meaningful.  Instead, CBP indicated that improvements, perhaps new rope and pontoons for the ferry at Los Ebanos were more of a priority.  Go figure.

My colleague, Chad Wolf, argued in a previous conversation, that stimulus spending on new border technology and inspection equipment is not all bad, and once this equipment is installed, technology will speed the transit times. I understand the argument. But more importantly, I understand the history.
For the past 20 years, senior CBP officials, including Jayson Ahern, have testified to Congress that new funding and technology at the borders would do exactly that, facilitate the flow of legitimate trade and travel. Congress has almost always approved every spending program requested and we have seen a virtual alphabet soup of DHS programs (ACE, SBI, C-TPAT, USVISIT, et. al).
And yet, wait times at the border continue to plague honest trade and travelers. Long lines not only endure, but have grown.  This growth occurs despite the fact these DHS technology programs have consumed billions in taxpayer funds.

While, it would be nice to believe that this time might be different, the past is prologue.  The sad truth is that not a single one of CBP’s most touted programs has achieved the desired results.  All have overrun their budgets by several billion in taxpayer dollars and none of the programs were delivered on time.

But what is most perplexing about the DHS indifference to towards speeding the flow of legitimate trade and commerce across the border is that Secretary Napolitano, who when she served as Governor of Arizona, was one of the strongest advocates for building more lanes, bridges and inspection booths.

Indeed, several years ago, while serving in the Office of the Private Sector at DHS, I launched a project to build additional lanes across the border at the port of Nogales in Arizona.  What made this project unusual is that we intended to do it without any federal funds at all, and would instead leverage the resources of the private sector and attempt to build the lanes at a 10th of the normal cost and do it all in less than 2 years.

Then-Governor Napolitano jumped on the idea like a dog on a bone, energized her staff, and helped push the bureaucracy.  The new lanes in Nogales were built in less than two years, and relieved congestion that had plagued legitimate trade for years.

What then-Governor Napolitano must have learned from this experience in Nogales is that if the government is wise, it can leverage huge resources and additional capital to build more capacity at our borders and do it quickly.   Indeed, private investors are even now ready to build a new POE some 10 miles from Otay Mesa which would more than double the capacity and provide an economic stimulus to the State of California that Governor Schwarzenegger has estimated to be in the $ billions/ per year.  In Detroit, private investors are ready to build new and expanded plazas with more than 25 new inspection lanes to facilitate the traffic demands.  The same is true in Buffalo New York, one of the busiest POEs in the nation.

And yet, DHS stumbles around in a curious way, determined to avoid making the very changes that would yield the largest possible economic impacts.  Partners at the state and local levels of government along with private investors, who understand the economic benefits that could be gained by getting legitimate trade and travelers moving more quickly across the border, are left scratching their head and wondering why the government decided to invest most of this money to make changes that are not needed and in places that don’t matter.

Let’s hope there is still time for Secretary Napolitano to get a grip on the DHS policy and make some badly needed changes. Otherwise, honest trade and travelers expecting to cross the border need to be prepared for many more summers from hell.

Argument by Chad Wolf:

Before we begin an all out assault on CBP for how the agency is spending its stimulus funds, we need to take a deep breath and fully understand Congressional direction in the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009.

Some have criticized CBP for ignoring land Ports of Entry (POE) modernization needs and requirements in favor of new border security technologies.  I don’t necessarily disagree that our major POEs desperately need updating and enhancements to handle increased traffic they are now experiencing.  There’s no doubt that should be a priority.  But I don’t think that it’s a zero sum game.

It’s been suggested that CBP is using much of the $720 million it received in ARRA to procure new inspection technologies, communications systems and other border technology at the expense of POE modernization.  That’s simply not the case (at this time).

Under ARRA CBP received, in addition to the $720 million, approximately $260 million for non-intrusive technology, tactical communications equipment and radios and border technology (SBInet) on the southwest border.  This money, and not the $720 million, was exactly what Acting CBP Commissioner Ahern alluded to during recent remarks touting the benefits of new technology along the border.

Let us not forget that we are in the midst of a serious fight along the southern border with the Mexican drug cartels.  Increased security is what is needed and the Congress provided a down payment toward that end in ARRA.  Border security technology not only increases the security of the region but, if deployed successfully, can help reduce congestion and wait times at POEs and free up CBP resources for other critical purposes. The technology CBP is procuring has tried and true performance capabilities and is currently deployed on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan where it has saved countless lives by detecting IEDs.  We can be assured that it will find contraband (such as guns) going south as well as contraband (such as drugs, money and illegal aliens) coming north.

When I take a look at what CBP is doing with its $720 million for POEs I also disagree with some that the agency is ignoring the busiest POEs.  Again, let’s take a look at how Congress allocated the $720 million.  $420 million is allocated to CBP-owned land ports of entry.  These are some of the smallest and most remote POEs that exist to be sure.  Perhaps they don’t offer the most bang-for-the buck, but CBP doesn’t have flexibility to reallocate this money.  It must spend it on CBP-owned POEs.

The remaining $300 million was appropriated for GSA-owned POEs.  These are the large POEs that many of us are aware of and perhaps have traveled through.  While $300 million sounds like a significant amount of money, it really just represents an initial down payment for these high-traffic POEs.  Just recently Secretary Napolitano announced that $200 million of ARRA funding would go toward “a major overhaul of the Nogales [Ariz.] port of entry.”  In addition, the Secretary indicated that CBP would be installing improvements at Otay Mesa [California] and redesigning Columbus [New Mexico].  All three of these POEs are GSA-owned and represent some of the largest crossings.

To this author it appears that CBP is implementing ARRA funding in a responsible manner.  But perhaps most importantly, the agency is implementing the funding in manner in which the Congress directed it to do so.  If there’s an argument to be made about the allocation of these funds and the re-setting of priorities, that’s a discussion to have with Congress and not CBP.

Argument by Sam Rosenfeld:

The recent decision to reallocate Point of Entry improvement funds to security spending is prioritizing security above livelihoods, and appears to demonstrate a disconnect between big picture and tactical thinking within the Administration.  This comment examines the decision from a government decision-making and prioritization perspective.

The Obama Administration promised Congress that they would allocate $1 billion to infrastructure improvement at Points of Entry (POEs); that money is now being reallocated to improving security technology and communications. The reallocation of funds around the POEs demonstrates department-level bureaucratic imperatives are being prioritized over the fundamental, macro-economic needs of the United States, and possibly leading to the ceding of control of important functions of government.

Mazlov’s personal hierarchy of needs is informative here; a human must have water, food and shelter before they can go on to do other things.  Note that this list does not include security as a fundamental priority for survival.  This list is equally applicable to the nation-state: countries have hierarchies of needs too, and the very first must be to meet those Mazlovian needs of their people – the bite of the economy is surely demonstrating that without national and personal economic survival and prosperity, all else is window dressing.  There are risks we must take, and risks we need not take; in the current climate, assessing these risks must be conducted by those who sit above individual departments, not by the departments themselves; that is what our leaders are for.  Once those decisions are taken, they must be communicated clearly to the individual departments.  This reprioritization of the use of the funds demonstrates the prioritizing of security over the economy – blood over lifeblood.

One argument being fielded is that the money must be used to make the borders more secure, and that in doing so the technology will increase the flow rate of traffic across the border.  That may be so, but increasing the rate of drips from a tap doesn’t substantially increase the speed with which the bucket gets filled; not when the tap can be repaired and turned on full.  If we examine the alternatives from a economic perspective, the spending on increased technology and communications will direct funds to technology companies.  There will be spending on the manufacture of electronics of various natures.  Much of the cost of electronic devices is spent to recompense these companies for research and development costs; generally, of the monies spent by the government some of the funds will go to employees involved in manufacture, some will go to the operating margin of the company, some to future R&D, and some to the shareholders.  The result of the spending will be greater efficiency at the checkpoints and a ‘higher’ (unspecified) level of security.  Alternatively, by investing in infrastructure improvements money will be spent on construction, distributing a greater percentage of funds directly to workers; there is more discretion for spending with small businesses and other disadvantaged companies on a local basis, ensuring that funds are disbursed locally.  The improvements to the POEs will ensure much higher flow-rate of goods and services across the border.  I am not suggesting which alternative is better, rather I am outlining the two options.  Only the members of the DHS will be able to tell us what the facts and figures are when one compares the two alternatives; what the economic impacts are, what the value of the security spending is in terms of efficiency as well as security, etc.  My concern is whether such an assessment was done at all, and that the comparative assessment makes clear distinctions between economics and security, and clearly explains the value of the increase in technology.

What is really interesting is that DHS is effectively forcing private enterprise to improve the POEs because ‘it is in their own interest to do so’.  Not only are taxes going to increase, but the government is simultaneously encouraging private enterprise to pick up the bill for improvements not in the budget.  This is effectively an aggrandized ‘pay to play’ scheme, shifting responsibility for government infrastructure onto private enterprise.  While arguably this is not a bad thing – it can be argued that those who want the improvements will pay for them, while no-one is going to pay for increased security and so the government must address that issue – the wholesale ceding of responsibility for the POEs raises concerns about where the Obama Administration draws the line between private and public enterprise; my particular concern is whether there has been a line identified, or whether the discreet parts of the Administration is simply making up policy on the fly, without thought for the wider implications of their decisions.

Now is the time for Congress to prove that it is closely monitoring the new government, by seeking the proof that DHS took into account ALL factors, and not just security factors, when making this decision, and that the decision was influenced by what is best for the nation as a whole, not just what is the best security decision.  If this was not done, then the White House staff must take a long look at their performance thus far in ensuring an integrated approach to government, because they have failed this test.