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Monday, February 25, 2013

Border Security: Understanding Threats at U.S. Borders

Marc R. Rosenblum
Specialist in Immigration Policy

Jerome P. Bjelopera
Specialist in Organized Crime and Terrorism

Kristin M. Finklea
Specialist in Domestic Security

The United States confronts a wide array of threats at U.S. borders, ranging from terrorists who may have weapons of mass destruction, to transnational criminals smuggling drugs or counterfeit goods, to unauthorized migrants intending to live and work in the United States. Given this diversity of threats, how may Congress and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) set border security priorities and allocate scarce enforcement resources?

In general, DHS’s answer to this question is organized around risk management, a process that involves risk assessment and the allocation of resources based on a cost-benefit analysis. This report focuses on the first part of this process by identifying border threats and describing a framework for understanding risks at U.S. borders. DHS employs models to classify threats as relatively high- or low-risk for certain planning and budgeting exercises and to implement certain border security programs. Members of Congress may wish to use similar models to evaluate the costs and benefits of potential border security policies and to allocate border enforcement resources. This report discusses some of the issues involved in modeling border-related threats.

Understanding border risks begins with identifying key threats. At their roots, border-related threats are closely linked to the flow of people (travelers) and goods (cargo) from one country to another. Any smuggled item or individual hidden among the legitimate flows potentially constitutes a threat to U.S. security or interests.

The intentions and actions of unauthorized travelers separate them into different threat categories, including terrorists, transnational criminals, and other illegal migrants.

Illegal goods are distinguished by their inherent legitimacy or illegitimacy. Certain weapons, illegal drugs, and counterfeit goods are always illegal and categorically prohibited, while other goods are legal under most circumstances, but become illegitimate if they are smuggled to avoid enforcement of specific laws, taxes, or regulations.

The risks associated with these diverse types of threats may be modeled as a function of (1) the likelihood that the threat will be realized, and (2) the potential consequences of a given threat. In practice, however, estimating likelihood and evaluating potential consequences are challenging tasks, particularly when it comes to the diversity and complexity of border threats. Assessing border threats is also difficult because terrorists, criminals, and migrants are strategic actors who may adapt to border defenses. This report describes some of these challenges, and suggests questions policymakers may ask to develop their own “maps” of border risks. Several potential border threats are described, and the report summarizes what is known about their likelihood and consequences.

The report concludes by discussing how risk assessment may interact with border security policymaking. Given the uncertainty and the subjective judgments involved in modeling risk, policymakers may struggle to reach a consensus on border priorities. Nonetheless, a systematic approach to studying border threats may help clarify the types of policy tradeoffs lawmakers confront at the border.

Date of Report: February 21, 2013
Number of Pages: 33
Order Number: R42969
Price: $29.95

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