Border Control Challenges - A Roundtable Discussion

The topic of borders – ports of entry, security, and public health concerns – has become politicized, and the focus on true border security has been somewhat lost. Educating politicians and instilling practicality in the public are necessary before any effective border security policy changes can be made. A recent roundtable discussion addressed these critical issues.

On 29 March 2016, a group of 28 subject matter experts from the public and private sectors convened at Florida International University in Miami to address how the topic of border control affects many facets of modern society and homeland security, including but not limited to: legal and illegal migration, passport and visa concerns, spread of public health threats, border surveillance and control capabilities, and international travel. The surge of Syrian and other refugees into Europe, the reopening of relations with Cuba, talks of building a wall along the Mexican border, the international spread of the Zika virus and other emerging pathogens, and other current issues emphasize the importance of addressing issues surrounding the management, control, and protection of borders – land, maritime, and air. This article summarizes the comments and views shared by these subject matter experts during the 29 March discussion.

Evolving Border Security Challenges

The current “wet foot, dry foot” policy – that is, if Cuban immigrants reach U.S. soil, they can stay under current law and policies – continues to be very controversial. As relations with Cuba change and travel to and from the United States becomes easier, identifying potential threats becomes a greater challenge. The influx of migrants from various nations into South Florida, in particular, makes law enforcement agencies and emergency planners alert to the increased threat of terrorism as well. The current background screening procedures can be inadequate because, in some cases, there may be insufficient documentation to fully prove identity. As an example, countries such as Somalia currently lack a valid or trusted document authority, so it is difficult to vet people traveling from that country. One participant pointed out that DNA swabs were used in the past as a tool to address such challenges, but they are no longer in use.

In addition, many Cuban nationals seeking asylum are now arriving through the airport system. One roundtable participant stated that he observed 70-80 asylum seekers arriving on a single plane. Mass migration is an inverted public policy issue – a federal issue that has numerous local implications. When immigrants have the desire and determination to risk their lives to cross a border, it certainly has a local impact. Immigration laws can be complex and confusing, so local officials do not always know what to do when they encounter possible illegal immigrants. Some immigrants are able to maintain anonymity to commit crimes, while those who are in the country legally are sometimes victimized. Even in cases where the laws are clear, policy implementation is a problem. Furthermore, closing legal loopholes may result in the creation of new problems.

Law enforcement participants expressed frustrations. However, one participant stated that the current judicial system is also very frustrating when the same individuals make repeated attempts to enter the country without serious consequence. Of course, certain Department of Defense resources are available for border security purposes, but much of the responsibility falls on officers at the ports of entry to determine backgrounds and initiate sufficient security checks, without the ability to follow the migrants throughout the complicated and extended process. In addition, getting the necessary information to perform these tasks can be sporadic because some immigrants are not identifiable as a risk.

Humans vs. Technology – Some technology like the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) was designed to be interdisciplinary and interoperable, but not all stakeholders agree that it as a valuable and useful resource. For example, local law enforcement, industry, and citizens may know what to look for, but they are not often included in international security efforts. Other technology is outdated (with antiquated software), and siloed databases introduce uncertainties about how this information is being stored and used. Social media tracking and geotagging capabilities are helpful but still being developed as effective support functions. From an intelligence perspective, terrorist organizations are utilizing these capabilities and the massive amounts of information in the non-classified cyberspace much more efficiently than official organizations trying to thwart such activities.

Although technology complements border security efforts, it cannot replace human observations and intuition. By automating many security processes, agents are conditioned to use and rely on technology for daily tasks. However, they need to be constantly reminded that the system will not tell them the intent of travellers while they are inside the borders. Border agents using human intelligence techniques and behavioral cues, for example, have intercepted many nefarious activities near the Canadian and Mexican borders. Fingerprints, facial recognition, and scanning and detection technologies are useful tools, but border security screening must also include interviewing and observational techniques. Agents must be trained on what technology can do and what it cannot do. Operator experience and judgment play critical roles in the process.

Security Solutions – When faced with significant threats and limited budgets, force multipliers on both sides of the border are needed to ensure security. Diplomatic regional security officers, for example, provide invaluable information about societal and cultural challenges – extending out the borders. Consulates capture photos, process visa applications, etc., which could assist border protection efforts and information sharing.

A significant security concern in Florida is the many miles of beachfront that must be protected. Although considered a local law enforcement issue by some, it is one that requires greater investment at the federal level to be able to adequately monitor and deploy resources when, as one participant stated, “things wash up” on the marine or international border. Some of the subject matter experts believed that a sophisticated national database could integrate the disparate federal, state, and local information systems that currently are not linked, so that agencies can access police reports from other jurisdictions, create consistency in forms and processes, better inform the boots on the ground, and review best practices.

Locations such as South Florida routinely absorb immigrants into society. Consequently, the community must provide an adequate infrastructure including schools, hospitals, and other public services. A scorecard could be useful to rate how communities around the world are integrating these new community members and how the costs are being addressed. Topics to address on such a scorecard include: technology, computer networks, school boards, hospitals, and bilingual speakers. In any case, fundamental border security tactics involve advance analysis and documentations.

Federal policy makers should consider what keeps local authorities up at night. Feedback from roundtable participants included: (a) subpar information sharing; (b) inability to comprehensively control the borders; (c) asset sharing in a declining budgetary environment; (d) reactive rather than proactive approaches; (e) minimal control mechanisms; and (f) lack of necessary tools (e.g., training, technology, intelligence) to do their jobs. Some participants asserted that the nation’s situational awareness has returned to a pre-9/11 level. Although there has been some progress including matching task forces with threats; reconsidering one-way information flow; and building a unity of effort to address trade and other concerns that may present in the future). The problems expressed at the roundtable are not new, but they have evolved over the years. Old issues such as communication, technology, and unified efforts also must continue to be strengthened.

Public Health Concerns

For public health concerns, information infrastructures are once again critical. Communicating risk factors and determining if people are travelling from high-risk areas during outbreaks, such as the Ebola virus, are difficult because the information and public health surveillance capabilities available varies for each country of origin. Domestically, lessons do not seem to be truly learned from previous encounters with Ebola, SARS, Lassa Fever, influenza, and other pathogens.

Unfortunately, public health agencies often do not fully understand law enforcement authorities, responsibilities, expectations, and preparedness levels – and vice versa. The extremely infrequent enforcing of federal quarantine laws, for example, crosses military and civilian law enforcement jurisdictions and agencies. One roundtable participant dispelled the myth that, when a situation occurs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can “swoop in and fix it.” In reality, the limited CDC staff must cover multiple states and jurisdictions and cannot have quarantine officers at every airport gate or border crossing. Therefore, border security partners must monitor public health concerns. The CDC leverages partnerships and relies on first responders to be its eyes and ears by:

  • Providing training programs and symptom cards to help responders detect certain threats
  • Empowering first responders on the frontlines to recognize symptoms such as fever, rashes, etc.
  • Teaching responders how to take necessary precautions for their own safety
  • Encouraging responders to notify the CDC to determine severity and further instruction

However, the system is consistently under-resourced and may start failing as larger numbers of people require medical attention and support services. Those who do not have visible symptoms may walk right through screening or conceal symptoms, especially considering that many people knowingly take public health risks to avoid losing time or money dedicated to their travel plans. Public health concerns typically do not attract as much media coverage as criminal activity or terrorism and, once the threat passes, these concerns are quickly forgotten. Readiness and training for communicable diseases are critical to avoid operational shutdowns at border entry points, but a lack of consistent training can make the nation vulnerable for the next serious public health concern.

Cruise Ships & Academic Institutions – Roundtable participants addressed the challenges for both security and public health risks that the cruise line industry faces. Even non-life threatening events can still affect a cruise line’s business and reputation, so safety, security, detection, decontamination, communication, and information sharing must all be part of the business model. Relationships with ports and law enforcement are critical, as the ships’ personnel travel to various parts of the world, work with medical, public health, and law enforcement professionals from various countries. Being highly regulated yet also isolated while at sea, the cruise industry must be stringent on following or exceeding recommended guidelines for potential threats. Public health concerns about passengers or crewmembers could cause ports to deny access. One participant shared the following suggestions to maintain business continuity for the cruise industry, which is applicable to border security in general:

  • Share intelligence and best practices with others in the industry
  • Invest on the front end to have robust crew care
  • Collaborate and communicate with local public health and law enforcement authorities at all ports
  • Require inoculations (however, this may introduce cultural challenges)
  • Maintain situational awareness

Similar to the concerns of the cruise line industry, study abroad programs through academic institutions present major security and health issues. With little or no guidance from experts about what to do when students travel to areas directly or indirectly affected by outbreaks – such as Ebola – fear can easily spread. Clear and communicated policies can help address misguided fears, but public perception may override even the best policies.

Public Health Solutions – International health regulations pose additional challenges because some countries may fear economic and political consequences for telling the truth and, as a result, may not want to divulge too much information or conceal an outbreak as long as possible. Others may not want to alarm the population and overwhelm hospitals with the “worried well.” A concern among public health experts is the possibility that a communicable disease could emerge that combines the lethality of the Ebola or Marburg viruses with the spreadability of influenza.

Ease of worldwide travel raises the risk of transporting novel or re-emerging diseases to new areas, but it also offers opportunities for anyone to play a critical role in surveillance networks. Advance notice could facilitate advance containment and mitigate potential disasters. Other suggestions include:

  • Pushing the borders out to points of departure
  • Finding interagency cooperation in times of need
  • Identifying hotspots for disease outbreaks
  • Developing and exercising robust pandemic and public health plans
  • Instilling a cross-cultural understanding for outbreaks
  • Training and including medical schools, first responders, Medical Reserve Corps, and other resources as force multipliers (e.g., exit screenings, patient evaluations)
  • Promoting testing protocols to act as tripwires for diseases
  • Asking key questions (e.g., “Where have you travelled?”)

To be adequately prepared, planners and responders must imagine and plan for worst-case scenarios to even the most mundane subjects. For example, during the Ebola outbreak, U.S. agencies were unprepared for the quantity of garbage that one Ebola patient could create, the transportation difficulties, and the costs associated with a quarantined dog. Lack of imagination is a critical failing point in any disaster.

Volunteers, who play a significant role at the community level, must also be adequately prepared and involved in border-related discussions. Some regions have strong Citizen Corps, Medical Reserve Corps, and other volunteer components that can be used to assist local hospitals, share information, provide other support during a response. However, this presents additional challenges related to vetting and standard requirements.

At times, law enforcement and public health issues coincide during outbreaks when jails are expected to detain potentially infected or exposed prisoners. In such cases, personnel may not go to work (due to illness or worried well), mutual aid may not want to send resources to areas where they may bring something back, and security may be required at points of distribution or quarantine areas. One law enforcement officer at the roundtable acknowledged that, “We are the canaries. There is an expected loss because an officer will go down.” He further said that working with all community stakeholders is necessary because, “Whether it’s our duty or not, it’s the right thing to do.”

Other respondents stated that personal relationships are critical, but there need to be strategies and policies to sustain duties and build a unity of effort as needed. Mandates should be developed to help fill gaps when specific guidance does not meet the current situation. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Incident Command System (ICS) were developed as an all-hazards approach to incident response. However, not all stakeholders are using NIMS and ICS. Communities need to exercise contingency plans as well as the NIMS component, rather than simply waiting for a problem to arise. These systems are only effective with initial training, regular refreshers, and efforts to integrate different sectors and make it part of the daily culture.

In a global environment, border security is not confined only to geographical boundaries. Expanding physical boundaries and capturing information throughout the entire emergency preparedness enterprise are critical. As issues become more politicized and trade and travel expand, closing the borders is not a viable solution. It simply pushes threats underground and causes additional problems in the future, including the inability to quickly get trained medical professionals to and from areas in greatest need. Leaving a problem alone would most often only exacerbate it. Since intergovernmental issues require intergovernmental solutions, border security involves all community stakeholders both inside and outside the “walls.”

A special thanks goes to all the roundtable participants, authors, and sponsors who contributed to this edition of the DomPrep Journal.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author in his individual capacity, and do not necessarily represent the views of his agency, department, or the U.S. government.

Robert C. Hutchinson

Robert C. Hutchinson, along-time contributor to Domestic Preparedness, is a director at Black Swans Consulting LLC. Before joining the private sector, he was the chief of police for the Broward County Public School, Special Investigative Unit. He retired after over 28 years as a federal agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. His positions included deputy director, assistant director, deputy special agent in charge, assistant special agent in charge, supervisory special agent, and special agent at offices in Florida, Washington DC (HQ), Maryland, and Texas.  He was the deputy director of his agency’s national emergency preparedness division and assistant director for its national firearms and tactical training division. His over 40 publications and many domestic and international presentations address the important need for cooperation, coordination, and collaboration between public health, emergency management, and law enforcement, especially in pandemic preparedness. He received his graduate degrees at the University of Delaware in public administration and Naval Postgraduate School in homeland security studies.

Catherine L. Feinman

Catherine L. Feinman, M.A., joined Domestic Preparedness in January 2010. She has more than 35 years of publishing experience and currently serves as editor of the Domestic Preparedness Journal,, and The Weekly Brief. She works with writers and other contributors to build and create new content that is relevant to the emergency preparedness, response, and recovery communities. She received a bachelor’s degree in International Business from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management from American Military University.



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