Yet another water metaphor, or “Why physically securing our borders is a dumb way to spend money…”

I read this post earlier today, and was struck by the fact that (IMO and with all due respect to the author) it was the commentors, i.e. the community of people actually doing the work and using the technology, not the ones selling or buying it, who hit the right point.  So many of them have so many valid, and in many cases obvious, complaints, it got me wondering about the border protection issue, one which I hadn’t really thought about before.

So, as I so often do, I find my mind melds in the original bean counter nerd (my formal education) and the computer nerd (most of my actual career) and here’s what comes out from under the green-eyeshade-cum-propeller beanie – As a purely economic and technological matter, I can’t understand the math of trying to physically secure our borders.  It asks for all kinds of really expensive solutions and technologies that are unlikely to work, when the money could be better spent securing our SOCIETY in ways that would dis-incent the illegal migration in the first place.

Here’s my unscientific argument:

People are like water too (see Digital Water series (see here, here and here).  If you put something in their way, they flow around it to get where they want to go.  Given that fact, plus a bit of rudimentary economics and technology, “securing our borders” is in my uninformed opinion, mathematically provable to be a dumb way to spend scarce resources, both human and financial.

What’s the problem?  Well, there are many, but let’s start with the water metaphor.  Imagine people as a river, pouring across one or several points along a thousand-mile stretch of border.  With water, the pull is of gravity, with people, that of economic prosperity, freedom from persecution, reunification with loved ones or other human need.  Either way, the flow is basically unidirectional and essentially irresistible.  So what happens if you dam up one little piece of the border?  The water flows around it.  Duh, right?  Well, most of the proposals involve some combination of physical barriers (hopeless – I’m not making this up, it cost an average of nearly $4 MILLION bucks a mile!) and digital barriers.

If physical barriers are impractical (but we sure spent a bunch on it anyway) we get into cameras, drones, IR imaging, blah blah blah.  OK, suppose for a moment, that the physical gear were actually available in sufficient volume to secure a thousand mile stretch of border (remember, that with the crenelations of the great lakes, for example, a thousand miles of shoreline may have a lateral distance of only a few hundred miles in a two- or three state region).  So now you’ve got how many thousands of cameras, sensors, drones, and collection nodes running.  How much did that gear cost?

Here’s the resultant problem – How many people do you need to watch, sift, prioritize and act on all that data?   We’ve run into the same problem in the war in Afghanistan.  We’ve spent so much money on drones and other eyes in the sky, and they are so great at producing data, that we have far more full motion video from every corner of the theatre than we have people to watch the screens.  So without some smart downstream systems or algorithms (full disclosure, I make prioritization algorithms for a living, so I have a bias here), what good is 300 TV screens worth of video running at the same time if you only have 6 guys to watch them.  So what systems will you need to address that problem?  Those cost more money.

Now calculate how many people sneaking over the border from Canada have you just stopped.  What is the economic damage to the US you have just saved?  So on a per-person-stopped basis, what was the investment?  What is the ROI? Don’t forget to fully load the headcount (as we say in the bean counter biz) with the cost of catching, incarcerating, processing and deporting each of them.

Now add in how long it will take (in a world awash in data) for the coyotes (or Canadian equivalents) to work out the areas that are and aren’t effectively covered, camera’d and patrolled.  So, in a shrinking-budget political and fiscal environment, we have to ask, what is the ROI on all this technology and expense?

So, what’s a possible alternative? Spend the money putting up “anti-gravity” barriers.  Make the pull less pull-y.  Securing physical space over long distances is not in the “sweet spot” of what technology is good at.  Gathering, storing, sharing and disseminating information? Computers ARE good at that.  For the amounts of money involved in “securing the border”, how much technology could we create that makes the appeal and viability of illegal immigration much lower?

Could we make it way harder to get a job or paid work of ANY kind?  Sure.  Could we map historical data and interview deportees to understand how they stayed as long as they did? Who hired them? What work they did?  Then use the data to identify the most likely places illegals are being employed now and put pressure on, and/or incent those industries to hire only documented workers? Yep.  Data is great for all that kind of stuff.

Here’s another thought – how did those people not just get paid, but live at all?  Proof of legal presence is (where I live) already required to get hired, register a car, get a license, or lease an apartment.  Close the loopholes that allow illegal immigrants to live and work (while simultaneously creating sensible, pro-economic growth policies to bring in needed guest labor), and there will be less incentive to come illegally.  If you’ll be just as broke, homeless and hungry in Texas as you will in Mexico, and smart data modeling ensures you will be found and deported a lot faster, the incentives to come in the first place start to dry up, don’t they?

Why can’t we do the things technology is GOOD at to address illegal immigration cost effectively? (Oh, bureaucratic inertia, local politics, resistance to change, agency turf wars and vested interests and lobbying on the part of the vendors getting paid to do it the dumb way. But aside from all that?)

ONE FINAL NOTE – The “security” argument.  Here’s one I love.  “We HAVE to physically secure the borders to keep out terrorists.” The most transparently dumb defense ever of profligate wasteful spending.  A border fence, patrols, sensors, etc. These are all meant to address illegal immigration as a macro economic issue and a legitimate crime/LE concern.  It’s about JOBS and routine criminal concerns (both valid, but there are better ways to spend the money, as I argue above).  You can make a dent in the river of people flowing over a border with nothing but the shirt on their back.  It is supremely unlikely a fence will keep out the ONE guy whose coming to blow up the Sears Tower. Why?

A, you’ll never stop more than a portion of the river, how do you know you’ll catch the half of the water containing the next Mohammed Atta.

B, A determined, well funded illegal or someone with the backing of a terrorist organization has options for getting in that don’t involve swimming the Rio Grande or Lake Ontario.

And C) the people we really need to be afraid of don’t come in that way anyway.  Let’s see here:

  • All of the 9/11 hijackers? Entered the US through legal channels.
  • Khalid Sheik Mohammed?  Entered the US on a legal visa.
  • Ramzi Yousef, the 1993 WTC bomber? Arrived through JFK airport in NY.
  • Times Square bomber? Naturalized US citizen.
  • Y2K Bomber? Stopped by an astute agent at a standard border crossing station.

You get the idea.  Anyone who says securing our borders (not better customs control, not immigration control but our physical territorial lines with the rest of the world) is necessary because it will stop terrorism is either too dumb to know that’s a silly argument, knows it but thinks voters are too dumb to know it’s a silly argument, or has a stake in the contractors building the fence.  Any way you slice it, the data say otherwise and it makes me seriously question the person making the argument.


Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are mine alone, and do not represent the views, policies or positions of Cyveillance, Inc. or its parent, QinetiQ-North America.  I speak here only for myself and no postings made on this blog should be interpreted as communications by, for or on behalf of, Cyveillance (though I may occasionally plug the extremely cool work we do and the fascinating, if occasionally frightening, research we openly publish.)

%d bloggers like this: