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Listen to border on security

John-Coyne_opinion_2Author: Dr John Coyne 

As an outsider, one thing that seems certain in the great state of Texas is that life in southern border towns like El Paso is complex. This reality is particularly evident when you consider the hot topic of border security and all of its associated contradictions.

This week, the University of Texas at El Paso conducted a globally significant smuggling workshop with border security and migration academics from around the world. For me, the message from Texans in El Paso was clear: border security policy makers need to engage more with the truth on the ground in the southern border region.

In Washington, D.C., the political battle lines have been drawn. The whole border security argument has been reduced down to an unhelpfully simple choice: secure the borders, or let everyone in.

Arguably, the choice is even more rudimentary since President Trump’s inauguration: build a wall and secure the south, or migrant terrorists and criminals will get in.

In the 21st century, there’s more to border security than building walls. Border security must provide equal parts protection and facilitation.

A modern border has to be secure, but it also has to promote trade and travel. Put simply, no country can survive economically if it cuts itself off from the world. In these uncertain times of terrorism and crime, facilitating the rapid movement of people and goods is all the more difficult.

While we’re all familiar with the Department of Homeland Security’s protection role, the valuable role they play in getting goods and people quickly through the border is far too often ignored.

In the halls of power in Washington, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, public servants are developing our border security policies. Regardless of which side of the political battle lines they sit, these policy makers are focused on the “big picture.” Unfortunately, it seems that while doing so, the well-meaning bureaucrats in Washington aren’t engaging with Homeland Security’s facilitation role, nor the complexity and contradictions of life at, or near, the border.

Life on both sides of the border is intertwined in terms of culture, family, economics and security. Already, living with Washington’s latest border policies and President Trump’s executive orders isn’t particularly easy for those on either side of the border.

While it’s easy to draw a line on a map, breaking centuries-old connections and interdependencies seems set to cause much more harm than good.

Even now, there are signs that Trump’s policies will harm border communities. Public anger and resentment over the president’s border security policies is increasingly focused on the front line law enforcement and Homeland Security officers charged with their implementation. Blaming those implementing the policies won’t help.

The answer to this problem is rather simple. Washington’s politicians and policy makers need to make their way south to El Paso. Their engagement with the community needs to involve more than hand shaking and baby kissing.

The top bureaucrats need to see the fence that runs through El Paso and beyond: both its physical presence and impotence. The politicians need to talk to the families that are already divided by border security policies.

Advisors need to spend time with the UTEP students from Juarez who travel across the border each day to attend school. They all need to understand that the border towns of Juarez and El Paso are linked by culture and economics.

These visits shouldn’t be concerned with trying to soften hearts. Rather, your border security decision makers need to spend time with the Texans in El Paso and beyond to understand why building a wall won’t provide protection nor facilitate prosperity. And these same decision makers then need to communicate this understanding across America.

The fact is, providing border security at America’s southern border is tough; always has been and always will be. There will be no single simple solution to the challenge.

John Coyne is the head of the Border Security Program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He previously served as coordinator of strategic intelligence for the Australian Federal Police.

Originally published: 08 April 2017. El Passo Times