News that we lost Border Patrol agent Nicholas Ivie in the line of duty this week is a punch in the gut to any of us who monitor border security issues. The loss of anyone who takes the solemn oath to patrol our borders and secure our ports is felt all along our shared borders, from Washington to Maine, San Diego to Brownsville.
There’s very little anyone can say to ease the pain that the men and women of the Border Patrol and Agent Ivie’s family are feeling right now. Even the best border security strategy can’t guarantee that there won’t be terrible days like the one last Tuesday in Naco, Arizona.
I’ve had the immense privilege on numerous occasions in my career to ride along with Border Patrol agents as they spend an evening waiting and watching, not knowing if the next call over the radio is to assist a wayward group of crossers struggling in the desert heat, or engage armed and dangerous drug runners. Their commitment to excellence and professionalism in either case is inspiring.
While I head up a group that is foremost a border trade advocacy organization, in today’s border environment it’s impossible to separate the critical importance of security and the role of the Border Patrol in the trade discussion. After all, if policymakers in Washington are hearing from their constituents that the border isn’t secure, then even the most persuasive lobbyist will face a struggle to get Congress to pay attention to a trade agenda.
Our Border Patrol agents are oftentimes our last line of defense on the frontier against those with ill intent. We can help our agents in the field who put themselves in harm’s way by ensuring that they have the tools they need to do their jobs safely and effectively.
In the fall of 2010, I gained permission to visit the Border Patrol sector headquarters in Tucson for a special meeting with agents for a presentation on SBInet or the Secure Border Initiative-net, the technological security suite of cameras, sensors and integrated fixed towers that were often referred to as the “virtual fence” along the border with Mexico.
Back then controversy over SBInet was at a fever pitch, with Department of Homeland Security officials and people on Capitol Hill deriding the program as ineffective and wasteful. It was clear that the program was struggling to restore its reputation as sources named and unnamed were questioning the program’s effectiveness based on faulty or outdated information. To my surprise, none of the people that were writing about it actually ever went to visit the location for themselves, they just took someone else’s word for it, which obviously had their facts wrong and it spiraled from there – a perfect case for a graduate student to write a research report on circular reporting. In January 2011, SBInet was canceled, with over a half-billion dollars spent. No visit from the Commissioner of CBP or from the Secretary of Homeland Security to see the program in action, just cancelled.
But sitting in that briefing room with the agents and two Arizona state lawmakers, I was struck by the agents’ desire for more tools in their enforcement toolbox. We watched video footage of illegal border crossers that was captured by a remote camera and then beamed back to staff at a secure location. When I asked the presenting agent about his impression of the technology, he said that the system helped his men do their jobs and come home safe and that it worked. For him, that was all that mattered, knowing that the agent he was sending out on a mission would be coming home safe that night to their families. The debate playing out in Washington, D.C. between the Department of Homeland Security and the system contractor was far away from the daily struggles agents face along the border every day.
My expectation is that there will be plenty of opportunity in the next Congress to urge lawmakers and the administration to adopt a border security strategy that staffs our borders and ports adequately, outfits the men and women of the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection with the equipment and proven technology they need to do their jobs, and increases the security of the homeland, all while creating an environment where legitimate trade and commerce can thrive.
There’s a legitimate debate to be had over funding levels, where appropriations should be directed and the types of technologies that should be procured and strategies employed. But that’s for later.
Today I would urge you to make a donation to my good friends at the Border Patrol Foundation, a group that provides assistance to the families of Border Patrol agents whose lives were lost in the line of duty. The foundation’s work is incredibly important and a constant reminder that we are blessed by those along our borders who wear the green and those at our ports who wear the blue.
Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido