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The great border debate

Nov. 23, 2011

I venture to project that over the next generation all nations will turn to joint border management and wonder in retrospect, as we do, how they could have functioned otherwise. As philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer aptly noted: ‘Every truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and third, it is regarded as self-evident.’” –Alan Bersin, commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, from an October speech before the Brooklyn Law School

One of the more controversial topics in the freight community – on almost any level – is what to do about making U.S. borders more secure without impeding the flow of either people or cargo.

It’s not an easy task, to say the least, but it falls to folks like Alan Bersin (at right), commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to make it happen.

Bersin addressed the complexities he must confront concerning this extremely ticklish topic during a speech given back in October before the Brooklyn Law School.

For starters, he explained, borders define a homeland. “They are the primary reference points for national defense strategy and homeland security policy,” Bersin said. “Throughout history, borders have been the site of fortification, intended variously to shut in or keep out people or things.”

Sovereignty asserts itself aggressively at the border threshold, he noted, to determine who and what has the right or privilege of entrance (inbound) and exit (outbound).

“Yet the levying of customs fees and duties has generated critical revenue streams for governments since biblical times,” Bersin stressed; noting how cross-border trade fueled significant economic growth. “Thus it was no accident that one of the earliest acts of the First Congress during the [President George] Washington administration was to establish the U.S. Customs Service in 1789.”

[The CBP video below provides a quick overview of CBP’s duties – which includes the collection of about $30 billion on average in import duties per year.]

Hence the challenge the nation faces today: how does the U.S. encourage cross-border freight and travel, yet impede access to terrorists and other enemies of the country simultaneously?

“Borders are lines with real result and consequence,” Bersin declared. “For example, when we walk to the riverfront in El Paso, Texas, and wade into the Rio Grande, at midstream it becomes the Rio Bravo and Juarez, Mexico, begins. One crosses 'the line' (known as ‘La Línea’ south of the U.S. border) from one of the safest cities in the Western Hemisphere (five homicides in 2010) to its most dangerous (3,400 homicides in 2010). Border lines matter but rarely account by themselves for the changes they embody.”

In terms of freight and people, numbers again tell a vast tale, he noted. “The vast volumes and growing speed in the movement of people and goods toward and across U.S. border lines from a globalized world is staggering,” he pointed out. “Each day, every day, in 2010, in the U.S. alone, an average of 965,167 passengers and pedestrians, 64,414 truck, rail and sea containers and 257,990 privately-owned vehicles entered this country. Roughly $2.2 trillion in imports and $1.8 trillion in exports crossed our borders in 2010 as well.”

[Technology plays a big role here, as exemplified by the high-tech “inspection trucks” CBP now uses to inspect cargo containers.]

Yet the flow of such trade and travel was forever changed due to the trauma of the September 11 attacks launched by the Al Qaida terrorist network.

“[Those attacks] assured that we would never view cross border movements in quite the same way,” Bersin explained. “Transnational terrorism exploited the relative openness of our borders and laxness of our border regulatory regimes to invade the continental U.S. for the first time since the British burned government buildings in Washington during the War of 1812. In one fell vicious swoop, that was actual and deadly, not the potential threat we had grown accustomed to during the Cold War, America’s view of security was altered forever.”

The resulting sense of insecurity stemmed from the fact that U.S. borders had been violated, and the reflexive response was to hunker down behind traditional concepts of borders as lines of defense.

“All planes were grounded and our maritime as well as aviation borders were closed in the immediate aftermath of September 11,” he said. “Similarly, our land borders virtually shut down as each entering vehicle from Mexico and Canada was inspected thoroughly. In other less visible ways America closed its borders, with restrictions – pertaining particularly to the grant of visas – persisting today.”

But all of the emergency measures taken immediately after September 11 collided head-on with the realities of global travel and commerce through transit zones and supply chains, Bersin added; they also challenged directly the U.S. self-image as an open, free and welcoming society.

[Here’s some more footage of the CBP’s inspection trucks in action.]

“So the unacceptable economic and political consequences of shutting down the border coupled with the new security imperative forced a fundamental shift in our perspective,” he noted. “We began to understand that our borders begin not where our ports of entry are located but rather where passengers board air planes and freight is loaded on maritime vessels bound for those ports of entry.”

Thus, in order to forge practical arrangements to take both travel and trade security into account, borders now need to be viewed and managed as flows of people and goods as much as lines in the sand or on the water or through the air, Bersin pointed out – and that view necessitated a shift in border security strategy, to what’s known as the “integrated approach” used today.

“We remain at a very early stage of institutional evolution within DHS and CBP to this end of integrated operations [and] it likely will take a generation to achieve,” he said.

“There remains a second compelling requirement for mission integration within the realm of border protection and homeland security; I refer to the larger relationship between the military and law enforcement,” Bersin noted. “Yet the intellectual and legal engineering necessary to create a revised theory that properly aligns these functions and clearly delineates homeland security as a species of national security remains in its infancy.”

As a result, the “old dichotomies” in short no longer serve unquestionably as certain stars by which the nation can reliably navigate, he explained. “For example, the current military activities in Afghanistan seem less connected with obtaining classical geopolitical advantage than with assuring that country, or any other country, will not provide a base from which dangerous people and dangerous things can be launched against the U.S.,” said Bersin.

“And although means and methods differ, this focus is identical to our border protection mission of securing flows of people and goods toward the homeland,” he stressed. “There are distinctions here with a real difference to be sure. However, I submit, they need to be re-examined and re-analyzed carefully in a borderless world marked by continuums and flows rather than bright lines alone.”

For instance, if borders are flows of people and goods, Bersin said, then those charged with securing and regulating those flows must confront the reality that 97% to 98% percent of the traffic is composed of lawful and compliant trade and travel.

“The goal then is to identify and interdict dangerous passengers and cargo from among this otherwise legitimate mass generates a requirement to distinguish between high risk and low-risk subjects,” he pointed out. “Risk assessment thereby emerges as the keystone of border management. And information in turn becomes central to the evaluation of risk while data are the building blocks of timely and actionable information.”

Part of that will devolve to greater use of electronic information. Right now, on a typical day, 1.35 billion electronic messages are exchanged between CBP and other government agencies, transportation carriers, customs brokers and the plethora of additional participants in global travel networks and supply chains.

[The “Automated Commercial Environment” or “ACE” is one such electronic tool used by CBP in the freight arena. Though two years old now, the video below provides an overview about how ACE works.]

“They permit access, respectively, to records of each traveler and every cargo shipment—land, sea and air—that have crossed a U.S. border during the past eight years, legally or illegally,” he explained. “Sophisticated rule searches, using complex algorithms, scan this data for both known and unknown threats based on potential risks identified by the intelligence community. Targeting in this fashion enhances our capacity to find the dangerous people and dangerous things for which we are on the look-out at the border.”

In an interesting caveat, Bersin stressed that this abundance of data and the proliferation online of alternative sources of information place a premium on sharing it, for one’s information becomes more valuable, i.e., “useful and actionable,” by leveraging it off other information and data embodying and reflecting additional reference points that facilitate a connecting of dots.

Sometimes, of course, information is lacking, so the only other way to “find the needle in the haystack,” in contemporary jargon, is to make the haystack smaller, he said.

“The way to make the stack smaller is to differentiate routinely between high- and low-risk subjects and expedite movement of the latter through the global system,” Bersin noted.

In fact, segmenting traffic flows according to risk is a necessary condition of heightening border security, he pointed out. “We expedite lawful trade and travel through border controls so that we may focus our scarce regulatory and inspection resources on that traffic about which we have derogatory information or about which we lack sufficient information to make a sound judgment regarding its legitimacy,” Bersin explained.

“Moving ordinary travelers and regular cargo quickly through ports of entry, therefore, not only is good for the economy, it is essential, given the volumes we confront, to the security function itself,” he concluded. “Expediting trade and heightened security, accordingly, are neither antithetical to one another nor are they mutually exclusive matters requiring balance. To the contrary, they are part and parcel of a single process.”

Yet it is certainly neither an easy nor simple process either. But it’s got to be tackled – and tackled correctly for the long-term – to keep the U.S. economic engine running at steady, sustainable speed.

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