In the wake of recent disturbing events in the Middle East, including the execution of two American journalists by ISIS, the House Homeland Security committee called a hearing this week to examine steps taken by national security agencies to address the threat from abroad.
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson confidently advised the committee: “Much of the terrorist threat continues to center around aviation security.” He also spoke of monitoring foreign and American jihadists, information sharing, and outreach to immigrant youth.
But not until he was prompted by committee members did Johnson mention our southern border as an area of concern, to which he replied, “We have tools in place to monitor that.”
But monitoring is not enough – our southwest border needs to be better controlled to keep us safe. While fencing, patrolling and technology have enabled the Border Patrol to achieve reasonable control over some parts of the border, such as in El Paso and San Diego, there remain vast expanses that are essentially unguarded.
One such expanse lies in Hudspeth County, Texas, just east of El Paso. The county’s 98 miles of border with Mexico has less than three miles of fencing. According to Chief Deputy Sheriff Robert Wilson, anyone can cross the border illegally there. They can cross anytime, day or night, whenever they want to and for any purpose, and they do, usually to deliver loads of dope, but also to smuggle people across the Rio Grande. To make matters worse, the river is tiny here, and it is dry for much of the year.
There are 800 Border Patrol agents assigned to the area, but reportedly, under orders from Washington, they are largely confined to working a checkpoint on the interstate highway that runs parallel to the border, which is too far away for them to actually catch any illegal crossers before they can slip away on one of the highways.
The security of this part of the border is now essentially outsourced to the Mexican drug cartels on the other side. It is tempting to rationalize that the cartels would not dare risk drawing attention and reprisals from U.S. authorities by assisting terrorists in crossing the border illegally through their territory, but this is the kind of wishful thinking that can lead to dangerous complacency.
In fact, it is understood by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence circles that important players, in both the Mexican drug cartels and in certain transnational gangs based in El Salvador, have a long association with and personal connections to members of terror groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah.
Certain human smugglers specialize in an international clientele, not only from the Middle East, but also from China and Africa. They will gladly accept payment from anyone who can afford it. ISIS certainly can afford it, raking in a million dollars a day from illicit oil sales, kidnapping, and other lucrative crime.
Besides, why would we assume that the smugglers would even know or care what their clients intend to do in the United States, much less who they really are? American agents have successfully fooled and infiltrated smuggling organizations on occasion; so to could ISIS or another group bent on carrying out an attack.
Administration officials insist that they have seen no evidence of a specific plot, but Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) revealed at a hearing that he had been informed of the arrest of four individuals with ties to terror groups who were caught trying to cross illegally into Texas just this week.
Johnson’s nonchalance about the security of the southwest border should be a strong clue to members of Congress that if the homeland is to be better secured, then they will have to take the lead.
Jessica M. Vaughan is Director of Policy Studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a research institute in Washington DC.