By Edward Alden

Why is it that the critics of big government always have the most unrealistic expectations of what the government should be able to accomplish?

The DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) this week released a report on implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which for the first time in U.S. history requires all crossers at the land borders with Canada and Mexico to present proper, secure documents. The report noted, not surprisingly, that in the first months of this ambitious effort, compliance was well short of perfect. Some 96 per cent of border crossers complied, but 4 per cent did not. Given the enormous volume at the land borders, that meant that more than 2 million crossers did not have proper documents during the 8-month period from June, 2009 to January, 2010.

That finding prompted Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas to complain: “The WHTI requirements have been in place for over a year, and it is unacceptable that the administration failed to ask for adequate resources needed to fully comply with the mandate.”

Let’s take stock for a second. In the first 200-plus years of this country’s history, most Americans, Mexicans and Canadians could cross the land borders by flashing nothing more than a smile. In the last two years, DHS has put in place rules that now have 96 per cent of travelers carrying secure documents. And that’s not the drivers’ license in your wallet. It must be a passport or passport card, birth certificate, an enhanced driver’s license (which only a handful of states are currently issuing) or a trusted traveler card under the NEXUS, SENTRI or FAST programs. Compliance takes effort and expense on the part of individuals, and the uptake has been remarkably fast.

Further, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had the foresight to roll the program out gradually to avoid even longer delays at the clogged land borders. The preliminary evidence is that the disruption to commercial and passenger travel has been minimal. Moving to full enforcement promises to be considerably more difficult, however, since it would require everyone who arrives without a WHTI-compliant document to be sent for secondary inspection. At the moment, roughly half of those without proper documents are passed on for secondary inspection. Doubling the number of such inspections would overwhelm the current infrastructure and manpower at the borders and produce lengthy delays, the OIG report concludes.

What is troubling about the response to the OIG report is the assumption that border security requires perfect compliance with a set of screening requirements – the equivalent of the 100 per cent cargo screening requirement for incoming goods. As CBP wrote in its response to the OIG report, the priority for border security is to keep out those who pose a law enforcement or terrorist threat. WHTI helps border inspectors make those evaluations, but it is not some magic bullet. A full enforcement regime that automatically pushed all non-compliant travelers into secondary inspection would not improve border security. Instead, in CBP’s words, it would “reduce the law enforcement resources available to focus on those travelers that pose the highest law enforcement risk and thereby reduce security at the border.”

Unless Senator Cornyn knows something the rest of the country doesn’t about the fiscal mess we’re in, border security requires making intelligent choices about priorities in a tight budget environment. While more still needs to be done, the rollout of WHTI has clearly met that test.

In the debate on border security, it is time to stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. In a free and open country like the United States, there can never be such a thing as a completely secure border. The post-9/11 border programs like WHTI are all small steps in a comprehensive effort that should make the borders both more secure and more efficient. But they will never achieve either perfectly. This is government, after all. Conservatives like Senator Cornyn should know that better than anyone.

Edward Alden is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11.