Fear itself: Why closed borders are bad for America and the world

With hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Africa pouring into Europe and terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Ankara, questions related to borders and border control abound. Are borders—whether around Europe, the United States, or elsewhere—actually as vulnerable and under threat as some politicians insist? Threat perceptions related to terrorism, immigrants, and illicit drugs have been used by some presidential candidates to justify costly proposals for thousands of miles of walls along our Southern and Northern borders. Most recently, those heightened fears have led some leaders to argue against the admission to the United States of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria.

This heated political rhetoric obscures the complexity of the border reality confronted by the United States and its neighbors, which is dominated by the growth of beneficial cross-border trade and travel. The growing intensity of cross-border flows can be traced first and foremost to the spread of peace and the opening of borders across the Americas. Unlike Europe in the face of the Syrian crisis, and unlike Ukraine under threat from Russian-backed militias, the United States does not have to worry about the effects of military conflicts involving its neighbors. Across the hemisphere, countries solve their disputes in international courts rather than on the battlefield. 

Joining economies at the hip

Peaceful borders in the Americas are not an accident of history, but rather the product of two remarkable trends over the past three decades: sweeping democratization and the spread of economic integration agreements. Since the 1980s, the region’s militaries have stepped out of power, and democratic governments prevail in almost all countries in the hemisphere. This has led countries to manage borders through peaceful negotiations rather than militarization. 

And these democratic governments have also sought to tie their economies ever more closely together through trade and investment preferences: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay founded the Mercosur customs union in 1991; the United States, Canada, and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992; and the United States, Central America, and the Dominican Republic took up the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement in 2005. And now the Trans-Pacific Partnership offers the possibility of a next generation trade agreement that would include five major economies in the hemisphere. 

The degree of trade integration is unprecedented.

Economic integration and democratization have produced many public goods in the Americas, such as increased freedom and shared prosperity. According to United Nations statistics, merchandise trade in Latin America more than tripled between 2000 and 2014, and trade flows have nearly doubled for North America over the same period. As of 2013, 32.5 percent of total U.S. trade takes place with Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, and over 55 percent of imported oil is sourced from other countries in the Americas. 

The North America Free Trade Agreement countries are at the forefront of these trends toward peaceful relations among nations, deep economic integration, and intensified cross-border flows. The degree of trade integration is unprecedented: Approximately 40 percent of everything Mexico exports to the United States contain U.S. inputs, and for Canada, 25 percent of exports to the United States depend on inputs from the United States. 

The wrong kind of security

But these trends have also produced some public bads, such as borders that are more vulnerable to penetration by transnational crime and increasingly open to flows of illicit goods and undocumented migrants. And many experts agree that the majority of illicit goods and undocumented migrants that enter the United States do so intermingled with growing legal trade at formal border crossings rather than through the empty spaces in between.

Many democratic governments in the hemisphere, frequently mistrustful of their own security forces, have not made the necessary investments in secure borders to adapt to a regional environment in which flows of people, goods, and money have greatly accelerated. Governments also made the mistake of thinking that integration would only lead to an increase in legal trade, when it was in fact logical to expect that illicit flows would rise as well. 

And even when countries such as the United States do spend more on border security, they have focused too much on building fences, hiring more border patrol agents, and establishing ever more sophisticated electronic surveillance of the empty spaces between legal border crossings—a security strategy that makes little sense when paired with an economic strategy that encourages much greater flows of people, goods, and money through our formal border crossings, many of which suffer from a lack of capacity and investment. 

Improving infrastructure and the immigration system

Rather than build more walls, we instead need to adapt our borders to a new paradigm that prizes ever closer economic integration with our neighbors. This means that the United States and its trade partners in the Americas need to do better at finding the illicit “signal” within the growing tide of trade “noise.” 

This places a premium on collaborative cross-border security. Rather than duplicate efforts by having custom facilities inspect goods twice as they cross borders, we should have our customs officials working side by side with their counterparts, trained to common standards, operating under a common roof. Efforts are already underway to expand the pre-clearance of goods produced by trusted manufacturers and transported by certified shippers. Projects are now being developed to operate jointly staffed inspection facilities with Mexico at the Laredo airport in Texas, at San Jeronimo in Chihuahua and at Otay Mesa in California. As such efforts expand, they will ensure that border security resources are deployed more effectively and efficiently to keep us safe even as we benefit from a rising tide of trade.

Rather than build more walls, we instead need to adapt our borders to a new paradigm that prizes ever closer economic integration with our neighbors.

But we also need to realize that improved border security infrastructure needs to be paired with immigration reform. By making it much harder for people to cross our borders than goods and money, we create incentives for otherwise law-abiding people to seek out illicit paths to gain access to a brighter future in the United States. Instead, a well-designed and humane temporary worker program would provide our own homeland security officials with a much needed break by diverting migrants seeking economic opportunity into legal and documented ways to access the United States and leave the illicit transit of our borders to those whose motives are suspect and whose behavior should be closely scrutinized by our intelligence community.

From peaceful borders to prosperity

By pioneering these reforms, the United States would be well placed to collaborate with its other neighbors in the Americas facing similar border dilemmas, such as Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay on the Triple Frontier, or among the states facing violent cross-border organized crime in the Northern Triangle of Central America. It could also generate new ideas and best practices for European partners, who are struggling with a separate but in some ways similar set of border challenges of their own. 

Improving border security infrastructure and the U.S. immigration system would allow the United States to capitalize on the peace it has achieved with its neighbors and with other countries in the hemisphere. We should work to transform that peace into both higher levels of economic integration and broader and deeper security against transnational threats from illicit actors. 

Harold Trinkunas is co-editor of the new book from Johns Hopkins University Press, “

American Crossings: Border Politics in the Western Hemisphere