Commentary

Border Security Is No Job for the Military

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on February 5, 2003.

In her new bestseller, “Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores,” Michelle Malkin writes that “at the northern border with Canada … every rubber orange cone and measly ‘No Entry’ sign should immediately be replaced with an armed National Guardsman.” She suggests something in the neighborhood of 100,000 troops.

Armed soldiers at Niagara Falls? Surely not.

But Malkin is not alone. Politicians like Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo (R-Colo.) and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly also are calling to militarize our borders.

The U.S. military is the most effective fighting force in history — so effective, in fact, that some people have come to see it as a panacea for every security problem posed by the terrorist threat. But on the home front, there are many tasks for which the military is ill suited and where its deployment would be ineffective and dangerous.

The same training that makes U.S. soldiers outstanding warriors makes them extremely dangerous as cops. Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, put it succinctly: The military “is trained to vaporize, not Mirandize.”

No one knows this better than the military itself, which is why the Pentagon has consistently resisted calls to station troops on our borders, most recently last spring, when Congress pushed for border militarization. Pentagon officials raised the possibility of an “unlawful and potentially lethal use-of-force incident” if the troops were armed. Ultimately, some 1,600 National Guard troops were placed at the Mexican and Canadian borders for a six-month mission, from March to August 2002; most of them were unarmed.

The Pentagon was right to worry. U.S. troops have been placed on the borders in the past, as part of the quixotic fight against drug smuggling. Even though those deployments have been limited to surveillance and support roles, they have led to tragedy.

In 1997, a Marine anti-drug patrol fatally shot 18-year-old high school student Esequiel Hernandez Jr., who was carrying a .22-caliber rifle while tending goats near his farm in Redford, Texas, near the Mexican border. The Justice Department paid out $1.9 million to the Hernandez family to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit.

The Hernandez shooting should be a cautionary tale for those who seek to militarize our borders. An internal Pentagon investigation noted that the soldiers were ill prepared for contact with civilians, as their military training instilled “an aggressive spirit while teaching basic combat skills.”

The new proposals to use troops for border patrol work would greatly multiply the problems revealed by the Hernandez killing.

Unlike the soldiers deployed for the drug war, the troops on border patrol duty would be given arrest authority and allowed to directly engage civilians. The danger to civilians wouldn’t be limited to border areas, given that federal law allows the Border Patrol to set up checkpoints as far as 100 miles inside the U.S.

Having the military enforce the immigration laws isn’t wise, isn’t necessary and isn’t legal. Both the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol are getting a dramatic new infusion of cash — a $1.2-billion increase over 2002 in the president’s proposed 2003 budget — and rapidly hiring agents.

If still more border patrol personnel are needed, they should be hired. But border security can be provided without the danger and the inefficiency that come with asking soldiers to do civilian work.

Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute.