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GAO report sees border crime down, but concerns remain

Southwestern border

Crime and violence in U.S. border towns are down, according to a study released by the Government Accountability Office, but there are still concerns about the safety of law enforcement officers from drug traffickers in the border region.

The report, Southwest Border Security: Data Are Limited and Concerns Vary about Spillover Crime along the Southwest Border (GAO-13-175), was requested by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), minority leader of the Committee on Homeland Security, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), minority leader of the committee’s Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX).

What constitutes a secure border is part of the current political wrangling in Washington over immigration reform legislation. Border security is a trigger that could lead to more changes in immigration law.

The new GAO study shows that, in general, crime rates have fallen in border communities in recent years and, in fact, are mostly lower than crime rates in non-border communities within the same states. However, it also notes that “spill over” crime associated with the brutal, bloody battles just across the border in Mexico among rival drug cartels is hard to measure in the U.S. and still poses something of a threat.

“DHS assessments also show that aggressive tactics used by traffickers to evade capture demonstrate an increasing threat to U.S. law enforcement,” said the study. At the same time, it said officials in 31 of the 37 state and local agencies said they haven’t seen violent crime from Mexico regularly spilling into their counties, However, 33 of 37 agencies remain “somewhat concerned” for the safety of their personnel or residents in the region.

The study said there was no standard definition for ‘spillover crime’ and many federal, state and local agencies don’t have the resources to track that kind of information. Nevertheless, the GAO said it was able to find pertinent data on border related crime.

It cited FBI data that showed violent and property crimes were generally lower along the border in 2011 than in 2004, by as much as 26 percent. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data showed assaults on agents were 25 percent lower in 2012 than in 2006.

It said DHS has a contingency plan developed in 2008 in to address the possibility that a significant escalation in southwest border violence exceeds DHS assets’ ability to respond. Additionally, GAO said that officials from all state and local law enforcement agencies it spoke with said their agencies had undertaken some efforts, either individually or in partnership with others, to combat criminal activities often associated with spillover crime, such as drug and human smuggling.

“This report appears to suggest that while border-related crime is a concern, border communities are largely safe places to live, work, and do business,” said Rep. Thompson. “While reality does not always match rhetoric, we should have as much information available as possible as we use all available resources to continue to improve security along the border.”

Rep. Jackson Lee voiced her concerns that the looming mandatory budget cuts set to take effect on March 1, that recent investments in border security could be compromised.

“Under sequestration, CBP would have to absorb more than half a billion dollars in cuts, rendering the agency unable to maintain current staffing levels of Border Patrol agents and CBP Officers as mandated by Congress,” she said. The risk at our borders will never be zero, but that doesn't mean our borders are not secure or safe.”


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