Courtesy Reuters

Beyond Border Control


Last December, as year 2000 celebrations approached, Americans got a case of the pre-holiday jitters when news broke that an Algerian terrorist with suspected ties to Osama bin Laden had been arrested in Port Angeles, Washington. Ahmed Ressam had arrived in the United States from Vancouver in a car loaded with bomb-making materials. Only a U.S. Customs Service official's unease with the way Ressam answered her questions prevented him from driving onto American soil. What was most surprising about Ressam's arrest was that he was detected and apprehended at all -- one man amid the 475 million people, 125 million vehicles, and 21.4 million import shipments that came into the country last year. The United States has nearly 100,000 miles of shoreline and almost 6,000 miles of borders with its neighbors. People and goods arrive daily at more than 3,700 terminals in 301 ports of entry. Intercepting the ripples of danger in this tidal wave of commerce is about as likely as winning a lottery.

The global economy's movement toward more open societies and liberalized economies does not just facilitate the movement of products and workers -- it also expedites passage for terrorists, small arms, drugs, illegal immigrants, and disease. The obvious solution to the challenge of filtering the bad from the good might seem to be increased funding for border controls. On the face of it, such an investment would appear logical. Stopping threats at the frontier is better than trying to cope with them once inside the country; customs officials also have the strongest legal authority for inspecting and searching people and goods. Accordingly, if there are more people and goods to police, there should be more agents and security forces along the border to do so.

But efforts to bolster regulatory, enforcement, and security operations at busy borders may result in a cure worse than the disease. Such endeavors place governments on a collision course with easy trade, which is key to the sustained expansion and integration of the global economy.

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