Small Wars Journal

The Challenge of the U.S.-Mexico Border

Tue, 02/16/2016 - 1:20am

The Challenge of the U.S.-Mexico Border

Jay Gilhooly

“One cannot be pessimistic about the West.  This is the native home of hope.  When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins.”

-- Wallace Stegner, "The Dean of Western Writers."[1]


The real national security threat along our border with Mexico is not immigration.  All along the border, transnational activities threatening national security include narco-trafficking, human trafficking, alien smuggling, and international terrorism as well as threats involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD).[2]  The stakes could not be higher as even a single truck allowed to enter today may have narcotics, tomorrow indentured women, and the next a piece of a dirty bomb.  Once through a border checkpoint, the truck has easy access via the interstate system to every part of the continental United States.[3]  A patchwork of federal, state, and local government agencies attempt to compete with a multi-billion dollar crime industry built on drugs flowing north and cash and weapons flowing south. 

From presidential candidates to Catholic Charities and from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) to the tea party, the demand for action to improve the security of the border and the safety of the people who live in the communities alongside it has reached an unprecedented level of consensus.[4][5][6]  The problems on the border have little to do with U.S. immigration law; rather, they stem from a convergence of factors, including sophisticated organized crime networks, decades of poorly executed foreign policy, and misinformation spread by smugglers to desperate people in failing states within the Northern Triangle of Central America.[7]  To better understand the challenges of securing the border, this article will analyze the Border States environment, the human element, and then look towards the future.

The Border States' Environment

The sun shines on the southern border of the United States 296 days per year.[8]  The vast border stretches 2,000 miles through the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean.  The beauty of the desert landscape is exemplified by national parks like Big Bend in Texas and blends with a rich cultural heritage seen in churches such as San Augustin in Laredo and multicultural cities from San Antonio to San Diego.  Beneath the beauty and deeply influenced by a rich cultural history lies a composite of conditions, circumstances, and influences that form a unique environment and affect the employment of law enforcement and security capabilities.[9]

Federal land encompasses more than half of Arizona (57 percent) and California (52 percent) and more than a third of New Mexico (35 percent) with the Bureau of Land Management alone responsible for the administration of an area (419 million acres) three times larger than Afghanistan.[10]  The history of the region has been one of cross-border violence and corruption from the time of New Spain.  Native communities of at least three distinct cultures had settlements in the area long before Spanish settlers arrived and it has long been a region inhabited by outlaws, adventurers, and missionaries.[11]  The border itself was settled by the signing of the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty in 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853.  The Rio Grande/Rio Bravo constitutes more than half the length of the border.  El Paso (originally El Paso del Norte) was the first town built on the river (c. 1600) along a critical north-south trade route then known as El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Road of the Interior Land), and now known as the Pan American Freeway or Interstate 25.  The physical environment of the border is primarily desert with a scarcity of water and harsh weather that alternates between blistering daytime temperatures and below-freezing temperatures at night.[12]

The area many immigrants and drug mules travel to the north was a section of El Camino Real named appropriately (both then and now) Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death).  The area is a mix of sand, canyons, and miles of waterless terrain that is slow and difficult to cross.  The area is so desolate it was chosen to test the first Atom Bomb and yet became one of the four corridors of the North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 2008, eventually becoming the second busiest.[13]  The physical environment leaves those who cross the harsh, lawless terrain on foot, be they immigrant or drug mule, completely at the mercy of their guides who will abandon them if there is the threat of apprehension.  For the immigrants, robbery and rape by these guides, known as “coyotes”, is commonplace.  By the time immigrants arrive, they are often in terrible physical condition and desperate.  [14]

Those in the border areas have significant economic, cultural, and familial incentives to resolve issues locally.  However, local efforts rarely leave urban and semi-urban environments and beyond them there is often minimal enforcement of any type and activities, from crime to exploitation of the environment, most often occur unchecked and are at present largely out of control.  Limited federal spending combines with the significant distance of both federal and state capitals from the border results in a high level of isolation.  Funding for the security of both northern and southern borders is a minuscule 0.3 percent of the total federal budget.[15]

The vastness of the border, its unforgiving terrain, and relative isolation demand significant resources, competencies, and skills to maintain the status quo.  While a new approach and additional resources are needed, if there are to be lasting improvements, long-standing assumptions must be put aside.  To identify how best be handle issues on the border, an effective approach must begin with understanding the people who live there.

The Human Element

In the span of a single lifetime, the United States has gone from a highly stratified society to one in which diversity and inclusion are the norms.  As noted by U.S. Census Bureau Acting Director Thomas L. Mesenbourg, “The next half century marks key points in continuing trends — the U.S. will become a plurality nation, where the non-Hispanic white population remains the largest single group, but no group is in the majority”.  One of the largest and most important segments of this plurality will grow rapidly in importance as consumers, voters, and business owners.  According to the Census Bureau, the Hispanic population will more than double, from 53.3 million in 2012 to 128.8 million in 2060.  Consequently, by that time, nearly one in three U.S. residents would be Hispanic, compared to about one in six today.[16]  This shift in the population represents a potential in both economic and political support for meaningful change for the region.

Politically, border security is the most frequent national topic of discussion among residents, while immigration reform is at the center of everyday life.[17]  Economically and socially, the border consists of four sub-regions that share challenges and opportunities but also have distinctive traits that require tailored solutions: California-Baja California, Arizona-Sonora, West Texas-New Mexico-Chihuahua, and South Texas-Tamaulipas-Nuevo Leon-Coahuila.  Infrastructure in the region, including information, transportation, telecommunications, water, and energy, connects the border tightly with both the American and global economies.

As people have settled on the border, they have evolved a complex cultural and social environment deeply influenced by their regional origins and often by competition for survival.  In this struggle, then as now, the weak are exploited.  For years, the border dynamic was primarily poor workers or farmers crossing in search of work.  Now, there is a flood of refugees from Honduras and Guatemala among many others.  Research into groups of displaced persons yields interesting findings concerning subgroups of population and immigration issues.  Not only are they often better educated and higher performing, they tend to make a net positive contribution to the economy.  

However, rather than the popular notion that resettled peoples have come to a great new life, the reality is often very different.  Instead of the imagined ideal life, many immigrants, especially women, have an overriding sense that social networks have been eroded and fractured.  Combined with the trauma of victimization on the journey to their new homes, ranging from robbery to rape, researchers often find a lingering atmosphere of sadness, distress, anxiety, and depression.  Family separation, dissolution of social networks following conflict and displacement, and the conditions of resettlement combine to undermine the possibility of community cohesion.[18]

A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focus group study of U.S. immigrant and refugee communities spoke with both immigrants and refugees and people working with these populations.  The participants described a world full of hurdles beyond the expected tension of illegal or quasi-legal employment and language barriers to education.  The participants spoke of social isolation and prejudice from social services to law enforcement.[19]  Many agencies focus in error on an understanding of criminal organizations like gangs to meet the current challenges on the border.  These misplaced priorities combined with immigrant’s disconnection from society may be producing the perfect environment and recruiting base for terrorist and criminal organizations.

The southwest border exists in a complex social and political environment.  From the beginning, immigration has been a consistent theme on the border.  Real change must be rooted in the very detail about individual groups that is so often overlooked by leaders who may have little experience with new populations.[20]  Building strong relationships with a network of institutions is critical.[21]  It is critical that leaders acknowledge the interconnected roles that economic and political institutions play in creating and maintaining a stratified society and begin to envision a new approach for the future.[22]

Towards the Future

Clausewitz noted, “Defense is the stronger form of waging war”.  He described defense not as a simple shield, but rather a shield made up of well-directed blows.[23]  Efforts to strengthen the border have fallen short.  The federal government, according to the General Accounting Office, can only prevent illegal entry along 129 miles of the 1,954-mile U.S.-Mexican border.  It has the capability and resources to deter or detect individuals along 873 miles of the border and the ability to apprehend them after crossing within an area of 743 square miles.[24]  A border is a system of systems.  We must look beyond the models of the past and seek new ways of thinking.  Building on a new understanding of the environment and the human element, success in the future will require a new level of strategic thinking. 

Building consensus and successfully negotiating a compromise with both internal and external groups is crucial.  At the same time, there will need to be a high level of emotional intelligence and understanding of the need for buy-in by the members of governmental and non-governmental organizations including those in all areas of public safety.  An even greater challenge will be carrying out the change without lowering already minimal service levels.  The logical approach for leaders is to develop a partnership or a series of partnerships.

A complex needs assessment touching multiple areas will need to be conducted.  Most southwestern cities have major universities filled with social scientists and the expertise to furnish knowledge about local populations and countries of origin.  They can aid in developing a coherent analytic and strategic framework as well as building relationships that are more functional.  For example, in A Practical Guide to Needs Assessment, Kavita Gupta, Catherine Sleezer, and Darlene Russ-Eft outline an effective approach to complex needs assessment and offer one potential path to follow.  Analysis can be broken up into manageable chunks that can later be translated into a long-term action plan based on models such as the Organizational Elements Model.[25]

One potential partner is obvious.  With over 3 million personnel across 24 time zones, the Department of Defense (DOD) is forced to innovate constantly; collaborating with more organizations (both governmental and non-governmental) than any other as the world situation evolves.[26]  The authority of the states involved to define priorities must be respected, but there is clearly a potential for a successful role for the military joining with the many other government agencies at all levels as well as business and community organizations.  In spite of the many bases located in border states, the military commitment to the border is minimal with an operational planning headquarters, Joint Task Force-North, currently having 180 personnel in total.  The command relies on contributions of other organizations’ military assets to accomplish its homeland security support mission.[27]

While there are legal considerations, it is interesting to consider expanding the ability to support, train, and assist local governance and public safety from the many bases within the border states.  Direct utilization of the military does occur to a limited level through the National Guard’s counter-drug program.  The effort will need far more than just a limited DOD role, in addition to drugs, immigration, and terrorism, the potential Zika virus threat points to the known strategic vulnerabilities on the border concerning strategic planning, research, data collection, academic alliances, and infectious disease and public health emergencies.[28]  It is essential to support efforts to assess and improve the civilian medical and public health systems, including infrastructure, training and education, logistics, and public health programs.[29]

The border provides an opportunity to test the recommendations for multi-compo units put forth in the Future of the Army report.[30]  The Army (both Active and National Guard), Navy, and Air Force existing installations could continue their missions, but leverage efficiencies in administration and support as the DOD deploys units for specific tasks utilizing security, intelligence, sustainment, and medical (to name just a few) capabilities resident in both active and reserve forces.  For example, there is the potential to close the high traffic routes through environmentally vulnerable portions of our national parks and restore the land.  DOD has been successful elsewhere in the world with many efforts seeing the formation of military units capable of large projects conducted while demonstrating unique cultural and regional astuteness, cultural familiarity, linguistic capability, and professional skills that parallel those found in civilian nonprofit institutions.[31]

The beauty and culture of the cities near the border exemplifies the huge potential of a blending of different influences.  Tourism and business flourish in these states alongside an array of problems and threats that hold back development.  Government at all levels must seek to actively build partnerships and utilize parallel leadership as a multiplier for their efforts to address the challenges of the border.  In this manner, a sense that ethics and morals representing a social contract with all groups within border communities can be established.  Building from these relationships, a deliberate approach to identifying the gaps between the current and desired conditions can be conducted.


This article has analyzed the border states environment, examined the crucial human element, and looked towards a possible future.  Future solutions will need to start with leaders at all levels.  An important part of the region's history is the profound impact that great leaders have had, be they elected officials, the leading member of a tribe, a military commander, or a labor advocate.  Regardless of culture, whether their praises are sung via English/Scottish ballads or Spanish corridos, the lives of heroes are familiar themes as they resist frontier lawlessness, exude national pride, rebel against injustice, and stand against all odds.[32]

Many will point to past failures and say that improved border security is hopeless and cannot be done. However, the potential of the agencies, organizations, groups of people, and business interests that could be linked and enabled by improving understanding of the area and innovative solutions as explored here is huge.  As a result, a better response would be to remember the motto of Cesar Chavez, a leader who perhaps understood the region better than any, and the determination to improve lives through meaningful change behind it,  "Si, Se Puede" ("Yes, it can be done").[33]

End Notes

[1] Stegner, W., The Sound of Mountain Water. 2015, New York: Vintage Books.

[2] Carrasco, Armando. "Military Homeland Security Support:Joint Task Force North Supports Federal Agencies." Joint Task Force North. 2015. (accessed August 7, 2015).

[3] Federal Bureau of Investigation. Crime on the Southwest Border. 2015. (accessed August 6, 2015).

[4] Catholic Charities. Catholic Charities. 2015. (accessed August 11, 2015).

[5] Tea Party. TEAPARTY.ORG. July 6, 2014. (accessed August 11, 2015).

[6] Carroll, Michael J. "Report from the Laredo, Texas, Summit." The Police Chief 77. August 2010. (accessed August 11, 2015).

[7] Carroll, Michael J. "Report from the Laredo, Texas, Summit." The Police Chief 77. August 2010. (accessed August 11, 2015).

[8] Nexus. Current Results. 2015. (accessed August 6, 2015).

[9] Headquarters, Department Of The Army. Unified Land Operations. Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 2012.

[10] Pomarico, Bonnie. Public Land Statistics. Fiscal Year Summary, Bureau of Land Management, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 2011.

[11] Smithsonian Institute. United States-Mexico Borderlands/Frontera. Edited by Olivia Cadaval. July 2014. (accessed August 22, 2015).

[12] The Nature Conservancy. The Chihuahuan Desert. 2015. (accessed August 11, 2015).

[13] New Mexico Museum of Art. History: El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. 2010. (accessed August 22, 2015).

[14] Halpern, Jared. "Fox News." Politics at the Border. July 24, 2015. (accessed August 7, 2015).

[15] Jeffrey, Terence P. "Federal Auditor: Border Patrol Can Stop Illegal Entries Along Only 129 Miles of 1,954-Mile Mexican Border." CNS News. March 11, 2011. (accessed August 10, 2015)..

[16] U.S. Census Bureau. U.S. Census Bureau Projections Show a Slower Growing, Older, More Diverse Nation a Half Century from Now. December 12, 2012.

[17] Halpern, Jared. Politics At The Border.

[18] McKergow, Mark. "Host leadership: towards a new yet ancient metaphor." International Journal of Leadership in Public Services (5), no. 5 (2009): 19-24.

[19] McKergow, Host Leadership.

[20] Hoggett, P., M. Mayo, and C. Miller. "Private Passions, the Public Good and Public Service Reforms." Social Policy and Administration 40, no. 7 (2006): 758-773.

[21] More, H., F. Wegener, and L. Miller. Effective Police Supervision (3rd Ed). Cicinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing, 1999.

[22]Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "Living In America: Challenges Facing New Immigrants and Refugee." Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Edited by Katherine E. Garrett. Lake Snell Perry Mermin/Decision Research. August 1, 2006. (accessed 21 2015, August).

[23] Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

[24] Jeffrey, Terence P. "Federal Auditor: Border Patrol Can Stop Illegal Entries Along Only 129 Miles of 1,954-Mile Mexican Border." CNS News. March 11, 2011. (accessed August 10, 2015)..

[25] Sleezer, C.M., D. Russ-Eft, and K. Gupta, A Practical Guide to Needs Assessment (American Society for Training & Development (ASTD). 2014, Kindle Addition: Wiley.

[26] Department of Defense. 2012. Preserving Stability Operations Capabilities to Meet Future. Biennial Assessment of Stability Operations Capabilities, Washington, D.C.: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Accessed July 6, 2015.

[27] Carrasco, Armando. "Military Homeland Security Support:Joint Task Force North Supports Federal Agencies." Joint Task Force North. 2015. (accessed August 7, 2015).

[28] United States Department of Health and Human Services. U.S.- Mexico Border Health. October 3, 2015. (accessed February 14, 2016).

[29] Department of Defense. 2012. Preserving Stability Operations Capabilities to Meet Future. Biennial Assessment of Stability Operations Capabilities, Washington, D.C.: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Accessed July 6, 2015.

[30] National Commission on the Future of the Army. "Report to the President and the Congress of the United States." National Commission on the Future of the Army. January 28, 2016. (accessed Fenruary 14, 2016).

[31] Preserving Stability Operations Capabilities to Meet Future. 2012, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy: Washington, D.C.

[32] McKergow, Host Leadership.

[33] 2015. Cesar Chavez: Labor Leader. Accessed August 22, 2015.



Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Jay Gilhooly is a public health professional and proud Army reservist.  He retired after serving 20 years in law enforcement.  A graduate of the US Army War College, his Ph.D. dissertation is studying risk factors in emergency preparedness.