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India can learn from the US experience in securing its borders

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 14, 2009

    After 9/11, the United States created a Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which brought under its umbrella a large number of disparate agencies dealing with law enforcement, border protection and related matters. The stated mission of DHS is simply to protect the country against those who seek to disrupt the American way of life. It is a unified department with the present strength exceeding 225,000. The department deals with a host of issues including customs and border protection, immigration, coastal security, cyber security, NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) attacks, law enforcement, counter-narcotics, disaster management and transport security. It co-ordinates its efforts with a large number of federal, state and local agencies. Its annual budget is close to $50 billion.

    In a December 9, 2009 testimony to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Secretary of the DHS Janet Napolitano gave an account of the steps taken by the department to strengthen border security and check illegal immigration. The United States faces a major illegal immigration challenge. According to various estimates, about 11 million illegal migrants, of whom about 57 percent are from Mexico, live in the United States. The borders also witness smuggling of arms and narcotics. In 2008-2009, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) authorities who guard entry points across the United States seized 911,800 kilogrammes of narcotics and 556,000 illegal ‘aliens’. During the same year, the CBP authorities handled 361 million pedestrians and passengers crossings at the various ports of entry.

    The DHS has followed a multi-pronged strategy to meet the challenge of illegal migration. These include strengthening border security by providing additional human and technological resources, strengthening inter-agency co-ordination, establishing partnerships with neighbouring countries like Mexico and Canada, and strengthening immigration laws, promoting capacity building and maintaining a strong oversight on the various mission focused programmes.

    Strict enforcement of immigration and customs laws is an important part of securing borders. In the aftermath of 9/11 the United States created an agency called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as the largest investigative agency of the DHS in 2003. It is charged with the enforcement of US immigration and customs laws. It is responsible for detention services, investigations, intelligence and international co-operation.

    The department of homeland security has a comprehensive Secure Borders Initiative (SBI), which combines various components of border security into an integrated strategy. The programme is co-ordinated by the US Customs and Border Protection agency. As a result of this programme drug, arms, cash and human smuggling have fallen to all time lows in recent years. Deportations are at an all time high.

    The foremost component of the strategy to strengthen borders is to find an agency that can lead the programme. In the US case it is the ICE. ICE is responsible for forming partnerships at central, state, and local levels to ensure that the programme runs smoothly. The importance of a nodal agency that provides the leadership cannot be overestimated. The lack of inter-agency coordination can simply kill any programme. At the ground level, ICE has formed 17 multi-agency Border Enforcement Security Taskforces (BESTs).

    The second important component of border guarding strategy is the wide-ranging partnership with the Mexican government and its agencies. US and Mexican agencies work in a coordinated fashion. ICE has a number of liaison offices in Mexico. BEST teams in the United States have representatives from Mexico.

    Thirdly, the law of the land is enforced strictly, without pressure from the outside. The teams work without external interference within the authority provided by the law.

    Fourthly, partnerships have been established b the ICE with local authorities. The local authorities work as force multipliers and not as impediments. Without the co-operation of local authorities, border protection will not be effective. The central government provides various kinds of support – financial, technological, capacity building – to the local authorities.

    Fifth, technology has been used extensively to help in border protection. State of the art surveillance systems have been deployed. A hi-tech 680 mile long fence has been constructed. Data bases have been built. Information sharing is quick and fast. A number of mobile teams have been created to respond to incidents. A joint programme with the Mexicans has been established to scan vehicles, share information, etc.

    Perhaps the most important and most difficult part of illegal immigration prevention strategy is the reform of the immigration law. Suggestions have been made to legalise the presence of millions of illegal migrants as it is practically impossible to identify and forcibly throw them out. They make important contribution to the US economy. It is being suggested that their stay may be regularised subject to their registering themselves with US authorities, paying unpaid taxes and learning the English language.

    Some of the specific initiatives taken by the United States are:

    • E-verify is a web based system run by DHS which gives an opportunity for employers to check the antecedents of employees. Already 169,000 employers are using the system. During 2008-2009 over 1.6 million enquiries were processed by the system. The system is not mandatory except for those employers who employ persons under federal contracts.
    • The US-VISIT programme of DHS aims at collecting fingerprints of visitors coming to the United States. The biometric information so collected is shared with federal, state and local authorities to identify persons who may pose risk to US security.
    • The US customs and border protection under the Department of Homeland Security have launched an ambitious programme called SBI Net, which seeks to fuse new and existing border technology into a single, comprehensive border security system that will enable CBP agents and officers to more effectively detect, identify, classify, and respond to illegal activity at US borders. The programme is being operated by a private contractor, Boeing, under the supervision of CBP.
    • The programme is intelligence driven and employs state of the art detection and surveillance and communication technologies including UAVs and radars. The technology will create an effective command and control and border situation awareness by fusing the data to create border awareness. In the future, integration of wireless data, tactical voice, image, and video application is envisaged. The technology will also permit forecasting of time and place of illegal entry.
    • An improved system of issuing driving licenses has been introduced under the Real Act 2005 adopted by the US Congress. The DHS has recommended to the states a uniform system of issuing driving licenses.

    Lessons for India

    India faces risks at its borders even more severe than those faced by the United States. Its borders are porous and its neighbourhood is unstable. Co-operation between India and neighbours to promote border security is below par. Despite some measures having been undertaken after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks to strengthen border security, much more still needs to be done.

    Indian authorities would benefit by studying the US methodologies and experience and drawing appropriate lessons. The department of Border Management under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) deals with border management issues but its scope is too limited and insufficient for the needs of effective management. The security of borders is not its prime focus. The borders are guarded by border guarding forces like the BSF, CRPF, and SSB who do not report to the department of border management.

    While the lessons learnt from the US experience should be adapted to India’s own conditions, some general points can be made.

    The absence of co-ordination among various agencies, lack of technological resources, difficulties of co-ordination between states and the centre, the lack of mobile teams, sparse use of cyber technologies, and the absence of co-operation with neighbouring states are some of the obvious weaknesses in the Indian system. Indian policy makers need a strategic as well as a common sense approach to border management.

    • India could begin with a focussed border protection initiative (akin to US’s Secure Border Initiative, SBI) under the Department of Border Management of the MHA. A nodal agency to implement border protection should be created.
    • This agency should be tasked with co-ordinating with the various central and state agencies dealing with the borders.
    • Its operations should be intelligence driven. This means that the agency should have real time access to information with the various intelligence agencies of the states.
    • The Land Port Authority, which has been in the pipeline for a long time, should be established urgently so that the 13 integrated border check posts are created urgently without further delay.
    • A strong initiative to introduce state of the art detection, surveillance, and communication technologies should be introduced. The technology should create border awareness along India’s land and coastal borders. This will require the use of satellites, radars, UAVs, etc.
    • An effective command and control centre should be created to deal with border emergencies.
    • Mobile response teams should be created to deal with illegal entries.
    • The unique national identification system being created should be integrated with the border protection initiative right from the beginning.
    • Parliamentary oversight should be created to ensure that legislative support is available for the initiative.
    • Laws pertaining to illegal migration should be strengthened.

    After 9/11 the United States has taken a number of strong initiatives to secure its borders. Many of these initiatives have been controversial and come under flak. The US does not claim to be fool proof from terrorist threats even today. But there is ample political will and public support available for these initiatives. The DHS, a gigantic department employing over 225,000 people, has its own problems of co-ordination. Civil liberties have also been curtailed after 9/11. But this is the price a nation has to pay for security. India also needs to generate the required political will to take strong action to safeguards its borders. The US experience is instructive.