During a debate of the defense authorization bill this week, Republican members of Congress are expected to push for the deployment of even more troops to the border. This is in addition to the 1,200 National Guard troops President Obama already requested to address border violence and the flow of drugs and guns across the border last month. However, while advocating for the allocation of more money and manpower to “secure the border” may make for good campaigning in an election year, experts find that beefing up the border actually does little to curb border violence. In fact, these “get tough” border initiatives—more troops, fencing and operations that target non-violent border crossers—pull valuable resources away from solving violent crimes.

Despite the increase in border patrol agents over the last decade, the flow of drugs and guns across the border continues to grow. According to David Shirk, Director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego:

The border patrol has doubled in size to 20,000 agents—up 15% from previous year and more than double a decade ago. There are also more than 3,000 Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents, 300 National Guard troops (with 1,200 more on their way), and a significant surge in the number of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms personnel. However, border security advocates say that this is still not enough.

Indeed, the border-centric approach has encouraged drug trafficking organizations to evolve from relatively small scale, low-level operations in the 1980s into the highly sophisticated, heavily-armed criminal organizations that are today seriously undermining the Mexican state. The flow of drugs and immigrants continued practically unabated, despite these very costly investments in border security.

According to Jennifer Bernal of the Center for New American Security, rather than installing more fencing or deploying more troops, federal agencies should be coordinating with foreign governments:

Even as border patrolling has improved, the power of criminal organizations has grown. Crime rates in border cities are not skyrocketing as some claim, but high-profile incidents, such as striking murders and clashes with law enforcement, are on the rise. The most dangerous groups are the most sophisticated ones, and they know how to avoid enforcement hot spots.

Physical acts, such as installing fences or increasing patrols, will not do much to affect drug violence, or drug smuggling. What is needed along the border is a coordinated strategy among federal agencies and foreign governments—not incremental acts and feel-good deployments. Such a broad strategy would focus on reducing criminal groups’ ability to violently contest state authority, both by diminishing the sources of their proceeds (drugs) and their social base (through a mix of regional law enforcement and social programs).

Likewise, targeting non-violent border crossers with programs like Operation Streamline— a DHS program which mandates federal criminal prosecution and subsequent imprisonment of all persons caught crossing the border unlawfully—not only ties up the court system prosecuting non-violent immigration violators but diverts billions of dollars in the process—money and time that could be used to apprehend dangerous criminals. According to a report by Aarti Kholi of the Warren Institute at UC Berkeley:

Between 2002 and 2008, federal magistrate judges along the U.S.- Mexico border saw their misdemeanor immigration caseloads more than quadruple. Criminal prosecutions of petty immigration-related offenses increased by more than 330% in the border district courts, from 12,411 cases to 53,697.

Clearly, border violence is a serious issue facing the United States, but efforts to “secure the border” through bigger and longer fences, more boots on the ground and “get tough” initiatives make for better politics than they do policy. History has shown us that conflating non-violent border crossers and violent criminals doesn’t solve either problem. Until we start focusing on actual solutions that address drug cartels, gun smugglers and violent crime, history is doomed to repeat itself.

Photo by Auraelius.