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A June report from the Federation for American Immigration Reform makes for very sober reading. There are now at least 16.8 million illegal migrants living in the United States. Since President Biden arrived at the White House, notes the report, 2.3 million illegal migrants have entered the US.
Clearly something must be done. Some see the solution in artificial intelligence. In May, for instance, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) called on the federal government to use AI to better secure the southern border. More recently, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., said he would use AI to “seal the border.” But the US is already using AI at its border with Mexico: Back in 2020, Anduril Industries, an American defense company specializing in autonomous systems, deployed surveillance towers along the 2,000-mile border equipped with state-of-the-art cameras, sensors and AI.
Autonomous surveillance systems are intended to further ensure our border is impermeable. So why then does it appear more porous than ever? Because while the technology used to manage migration may be unassailable, many of the people tasked with monitoring it are not.
According to a recent New York Times report, cartels and “coyotes” (human smugglers) are earning a whopping $13 billion annually “guiding” migrants across the southern border. And helping them succeed is a web of bribery and corruption that’s been allowed to flourish with impunity.
Work by Dr. David Jancsics, a researcher at San Diego State University who focuses on border corruption, details the extent of the nefariousness at play. According to Jancsics, corrupt border patrol agents regularly allow smugglers to pass through traffic checkpoints unfettered. What’s more, these agents sell smugglers inside knowledge about how to avoid detection. So pervasive are these practices, says Jancsics, that border officials are considerably more likely to engage in corruption than employees in other law enforcement agencies.
Worryingly, research published in the journal Antipode, reveals that this corruption is “systemic” on both sides of the border. The author of the paper, Simón Izcara Palacios, a sociologist at the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas, Mexico and an expert in illegal cross-border activities, notes that it is not simply “a matter of a few bad apples.” The problem is rife, if not intractable — with agents being bribed with money and sex.
Indeed, according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition — which advocates for safer, more secure borders — “the culture of corruption permeates CBP . . . and DHS senior officials have estimated between 5 and 20% of CBP (Customs and Border Protection) officers are involved in some form of corruption.” Between 2005 and 2021, 238 CBP employees were arrested or indicted for acts of corruption, while CBD officials took at least $11 million in bribes between 2006 and 2016, according to the New York Times.
“The cartels,” noted Kennedy during the town hall event, are “running US immigration policy.” Strong words — though sadly not entirely untrue. The problem has not gone without interventions, such an advisory panel report from the Department of Homeland Security along with congressional hearings. But nothing has changed. So what now.
CPB personnel enjoy vast degrees of freedom, yet very little accountability. They are the watchers, but who is watching the watchers? Studies carried out by Norway’s U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center show how CBP personnel enjoy a wide range of “discretionary powers.” And these “discretionary powers” — which often go unchallenged — U4 says, directly contribute to border corruption. Much as there have been efforts to reform police culture – eroding the “blue wall of silence” — a similar push should be made to reform CBP culture, including addressing the “green-fatigue wall of silence.”
As attorney Sam Magaram noted in the Global Anticorruption Blog, CBP’s culture “too often tolerates bad actors and punishes whistleblowers.” Combatting this problem, Magaram says, means the CBP “must provide better training in how to respond to misconduct.”
Then there’s the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), the union that represents border agents. The NBPC has, on more than one occasion, deliberately blocked attempts to address corruption at the border. In fact, as James Tomsheck, the man who spearheaded CBP’s internal affairs unit for close to a decade (2006-2014), has noted, NBPC members actively opposed every single one of his integrity proposals during his tenure.
As America’s border crisis continues to worsen, preventing migrants from entering the US remains more vital than ever. True, folks like Kennedy and May see solutions in high-tech. But keeping border guards clean may actually be the most effective technology of all.