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Why Stricter Enforcement Can Also Corrupt Border Agents More

Borders are as inevitable as death and taxes. They always will be, so long as human beings require artificial divisions to “keep the peace.” However, whether stricter border enforcement yields the desired results is another matter. On this, the available research provides some interesting — and perhaps inconvenient — truths.

Beyond the question of whether or not strict immigration laws actually work, there’s another problem emerging: Tougher laws at the border often bring out the worst in the people tasked with policing it.

Customs and Border Protection: A History of Corruption

The Center for Migration Studies, based on more than 15 years of research, has determined that the U.S. is in a period of “diminishing returns” where border security spending is concerned.

Despite the many billions of dollars spent and will likely spend in the future, America’s chances of successfully capturing an illegal person at the border is a paltry 50-50. Stronger border security and sky-high spending has gotten incremental returns over the years.

There is a new body of research coming together that focuses specifically on the corrupting influence of borders — but not of illegal immigrants. It concerns America’s own border agents.

For a start, drug cartels have had a shockingly good run of luck infiltrating Customs and Border Protection (CBP), sometimes for years at a stretch. CBP agent Robert Hall spent a decade trafficking illegal drugs over the border on behalf of drug cartels. Martha Alicia Garnica sought a CBP job specifically to accomplish the same feat, which she did successfully between 2003 and 2007.

Between 2006 and 2013, some 144 U.S. CBP agents were arrested or successfully indicted on charges ranging from accepting bribes to smuggling drugs and even people. When academics claim putting an end to America’s war on drugs could deal a crippling blow to the cartels, this is part of the problem they are referring to.

What Happens When We Make Legal Border Crossings More Difficult?

The primary purpose of drawing and policing borders is to keep illegal and undocumented persons from crossing over. So long as humanity requires boundaries to keep the peace, CBP will be in the business of turning away would-be border-crossers. What happens when we simultaneously make it more difficult to cross the border for legitimate and legal reasons?

America has systematically made it more complicated over the years to obtain visas and request asylum. The policies enacted by the current U.S. administration are set to deny entry to around 375,000 legal immigrants every year and reduce immigration attempts by 65%. Not surprisingly, these policies disproportionally target the poorest immigrants — the ones America was ostensibly founded to protect and nurture.

Whether or not America as a whole still occupies the moral high ground is a matter for another time. As they set about studying border enforcement, researchers from San Diego State University were more interested in the effects of stronger borders on the individuals hired to protect them. That research is now available to the public.

The study’s author, David Jancsics, said this: “One of the main implications of the study is that strict border enforcement may even increase corruption.”

This is what he found over two years of research on America’s southern and northern borders:

  • Drug trafficking: Of all border agents with fewer than five years of service under their belts, 56% were involved in drug trafficking. For veteran officers, the number was 27%.
  • People smuggling: Here, the results are reversed. Some 25% of inexperienced border agents are involved in nondrug-related immigration corruption, or human smuggling, while 40% of veteran officers were caught doing the same.

According to Jancsics, this research is built only on reported corruption cases. Actual numbers may be higher, meaning these findings are, as he puts it, perhaps “only the tip of the iceberg.”

Corruption or Crime?

There are clear financial gains to be had when border protection agents stoop to complicity with drug cartels. According to Jancsics, “In some cases, officers did receive millions of dollars, sometimes even up to $5 million over four or five years.” Laws sometimes create very profitable friction — and somebody, somewhere, usually proves willing to exploit them.

Is there another way to look at these numbers? Jancsics studied, specifically, the crimes of drug trafficking and people smuggling. The phrase human trafficking does not appear in the entire body of his published study. Is it possible to conclude that a not inconsiderable portion of cases involving nondrug-related smuggling were crimes of conscience?

We have a working definition of corruption in this context: It involves the willingness or coerced cooperation of a border agent into refusing to do the job for which they were hired. It involves their working against the interests of the agency they serve.

If a border agent helps an immigrant cross a border illegally when they would have no hope of doing so legally, and who may be looking for nothing more than a better life, we can say confidently the officer is corrupt. They are a corrupting influence on the mission of the agency they represent. Have they committed a crime — or did they have a moral lapse? Answering that question will require more than just cold data.