The Closing of the American Border

Last week a senior manager at work suggested that our book club read Edward Alden’s The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11.  The manager had just finished reading it and thought it would be interesting and pertinent to us.  I agree.  It provided a very clear explanation of the responses of the Bush Administration and Congress to 9/11 in terms of how our borders are managed.  As someone who wasn’t paying close attention until a few years ago, this book was very helpful because it explained the immediate past history of INS and Customs, the time line of the creation of and changes in DHS, the players, the recurring motifs, the political motivations and the interactions between DHS, the White House, Congress, DOS and enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Alden introduces the subject with some immigration clamp-down horror stories.  He tells a lot of these through the book and I think I agree with his Chertoff quote later in the book, that you shouldn’t be completely distracted by these.  The book starts in earnest with a description of the condition of our border management immediately prior to 9/11, then describes what President Bush thought he was going to do related to immigration as he entered office and what he ended up having to do instead.  Then Alden describes in detail the two different approaches to solving the border problem:  the cops and the technocrats.  At a high level, the cops want to use immigration violations as an excuse to arrest and detain people, to catch more terrorists, regardless of how this affects cross-border trade and international travel; and the technocrats want to use technology to find the terrorist before they enter the country with minimal disruption of trade and travel.  The chapters on cops and technocrats provide the main historical account of the creation of DHS and its early efforts.  The next chapter (“The Scapegoat”) tells the story of the State Department’s role in addressing the border problem and of Ambassador Mary Ryan and her political battle in particular.  The quotes from her grilling by Senator Diane Feinstein are chilling.  This chapter also provided a very telling profile of Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Next, Alden describes the problems caused by the  new border management policies and the triage attempted to solve the problems.   The technocrat Secretary Ridge ends up running a department of cops, with the notable exception of the US-VISIT program (the outbound component of which was later shelved by Secretary Chertoff).  The penultimate chapter chronicles the changes at DHS with the arrival of Secretary Chertoff and surveys the current status of border management.  The survey is a long list of problems.

Alden concludes with three recommendations. First, immigration enforcement and counterterrorism efforts are two different entities and need to be separated to be effective.  The twinning of these two efforts is one of the main aspects of our response to 9/11 in terms of border management and Alden provides many statistics, arguments and anecdotes throughout the book that show why this is a bad idea.  Second, we have to manage the risks of terrorism, not just completely close the country to protect ourselves from terrorists.  Alden points out that our strategic security also depends on economic health and diplomatic goodwill, both of which have been crushed by our post-9/11 border policies.  Which leads to the final recommendation that we need to be as serious about letting the good people in as we are about keeping the bad people out.

I thought this book was great.  I now have some way to come to grips with our immigration policies and border management policies, least in terms of understanding better how and why they have changed recently.  Recognizing that some of my giddiness about this book may just be due to familiarity with the subject and recognition of some of the named players, please feel free to read these other reviews by the Financial Times, Foreign Affairs,and Homeland Security Affairs.

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