Border Security, the War on Drugs, and the 2012 GOP Presidential Race

The issue of border security has made its way into the 2012 GOP presidential race and candidates are jockeying to separate themselves from the pack. The topic garnered some attention at the Republican national security debate on November 22. An Associated Press story today examines the candidate’s platforms on the topic and as the title implies, rightly concludes securing the border is impossible. I am quoted in the article and make exactly that point:

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have promised to complete a nearly 1,950-mile fence. Michele Bachmann wants a double fence. Ron Paul pledges to secure the nation’s southern border by any means necessary, and Rick Perry says he can secure it without a fence — and do so within a year of taking office as president.

But a border that is sealed off to all illegal immigrants and drugs flowing north is a promise none of them could keep.

“Securing the border is a wonderful slogan, but that’s pretty much all it is,” said Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. “Even to come close would require measures that would make legal commerce with Mexico impossible. That’s an enormous price for what would still be a very leaky system.”

The bottom line is the border is simply too big to control. Attempting to fully police the border must pass a simple cost-benefit analysis, and it is not clear that our current policy passes that test. And yet, the candidates all agree securing the border is necessary to combat terrorism, illegal immigration, and drug violence stemming from Mexico.

The candidates have little reason to reexamine that assumption. Not only is it politically advantageous to call for securing the border, but it is a convenient one-size-fits-all solution to those three broader policy issues. They have calculated that this is what voters want to hear.

But it is an illusory solution. Laws protecting the border must exist and be enforced, but it is not clear that this alone, even if done more effectively or efficiently, will prevent terrorists or illegal immigrants from entering the United States. And the “securing the border” panacea certainly will not end the flow of drugs into the United States.

Curiously, while the GOP candidates all express worries about terrorism and illegal immigration, the subject of the war on drugs has hardly been discussed.  Although drug violence in Mexico is the only major security problem the Untied States faces on any of its borders, the issue has not produced serious consideration thus far.  Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) has been the only candidate to offer a thoughtful, consistent approach the issue, calling for an end to the failed policy.

The candidates should be pressured to answer why Washington continues to spend billions of dollars to wage the war on drugs each year with little to show for it. The power of the drug cartels has reached the point that the Mexican government no longer controls some areas of the country. And there are worrying signs that the violence is beginning to bleed across the border into the United States.

Our prohibitionist efforts have failed and a new policy is needed. Only by removing the lucrative black-market drug trade and thus effectively defunding the Mexican drug cartels can we begin to end the violence and illegal activity that plagues Mexico and the southern U.S. border region.

That is the substantive discussion that should be taking place in the GOP debates, rather than the posturing and repeated faux policy prescriptions to secure the border.