The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration, and Security since 9/11by Edward Alden
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On September 10, 2001, the United States was the most open country in the world. But in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil, the U.S. government began to close its borders in an effort to fight terrorism. The Bush administration's goal was to build new lines of defense against terrorists without stifling the flow of people and ideas from abroad that has helped build the world's most dynamic economy. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way.
The Closing of the American Border is based on extensive interviews with the Bush administration officials charged with securing the border after 9/11, including former secretary of homeland security Tom Ridge and former secretary of state Colin Powell, and with many of the innocent people whose lives have been upended by the new border security and visa rules. A pediatric heart surgeon from Pakistan is stuck in Karachi for nearly a year, awaiting the security review that would allow him to return to the United States to take up a prestigious post at UCLA Medical Center. A brilliant Sudanese scientist, working tirelessly to cure one of the worst diseases of the developing world, loses years of valuable research when he is detained in Brazil after attending an academic conference on behalf of an American university.
Edward Alden goes behind the scenes to show how an administration that appeared united in the aftermath of the attacks was racked by internal disagreements over how to balance security and openness. The result is a striking and compelling assessment of the dangers faced by a nation that cuts itself off from the rest of the world, making it increasingly difficult for others to travel, live, and work here, and depriving itself of its most persuasive argument against its international critics—the example of what it has achieved at home.
Former Washington bureau chief of the Financial Times, Alden provides a thoughtful and balanced assessment of border security and immigration policies before and after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, demonstrating how more stringent security can damage the U.S. economy by discouraging trade, tourism and an influx of bright minds and diligent workers. The author's vignettes make what could be a dry read engaging and urgent. Alden's policy prescriptions are book-ended with the story of Dr. Faiz Bhora, a leading heart surgeon from Pakistan who had trouble returning to the States to resume his work because of visa problems and was eventually caught in the post-9/11 Justice Department crackdown on visa applications by citizens of Muslim countries. Alden points out that the Department of Homeland Security concedes that most of its counterterrorism funds are being poured into securing and controlling the border with Mexico and makes a persuasive case that "immigration enforcement and counterterrorism are two different things, and for either to be effective they need to be separated." (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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The Closing of the American Border
Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11
To shield America from the world out of fear of terrorism is, in large part, to do the terrorists' work for them. To continue business as usual, however, is irresponsible.
—The U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century
(Hart-Rudman Commission), February 2001
On the morning of September 11, Robert Bonner was set for a crash course on the inner workings of the U.S. Customs Service. Established in July 1789 by the Fifth Act of Congress, Customs was created to collect the taxes on imported goods that were the only, desperately needed source of revenue for the new American government. More than two centuries later, Bonner's concerns were rather different than those of the founding fathers. The income tax had largely replaced tariffs for financing the government, free-trade agreements had eliminated most duties on imports, and Customs, part of the U.S. Treasury Department, had become just another one of the dozens of obscure government agencies in Washington whose job it was to facilitate the orderly workings of the free market.
Bonner, who had been nominated by President Bush to be the next Customs commissioner, was scheduled to meet first that morning with Dennis Murphy, a twenty-seven-year veteran of the agency. As head of public affairs, Murphy was looking for Bonner's support in his efforts to get some favorable attention for the more than 19,000 employees in the U.S. Customs Service whose thankless job it was to keep out criminals and contraband.That required monitoring the $1 trillion in goods and 493 million vehicles and people that were to cross over the 7,500 miles of United States land borders and through its nearly 130 international airports and seaports that year.
In August 2001, almost all the news had been about modest drug seizures. Ninety-four pounds of cocaine, worth more than $2 million, was found stashed under the backseat of a car coming by ferry from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory where Customs inspectors are deployed. In another bust, 271.1 pounds of marijuana had been seized on the Bridge of the Americas that spans the Rio Grande from Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. The driver, thirty-nine-year-old Bobbi Knisley from Denver, had concealed the dope in the auxiliary gas tank of her 1981 Ford 3500 and had then hidden the tank under a large toolbox. Customs inspectors at the border were suspicious about her answers to routine questions and ordered the vehicle pulled aside for a more thorough investigation. When Tyler, a drug-sniffing dog, started yelping, agents unbolted the tank from the flatbed and found a trapdoor that led to a secret compartment holding ninety bundles of marijuana.
Such busts made no headlines and had little effect in curbing the enormous flow of drugs into the United States. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported that cocaine prices that year "remained low and stable, which suggests a steady supply to the United States." Marijuana was similarly a buyer's market.
That didn't discourage the irrepressibly optimistic Murphy. Unlike most government flacks, who are nervous political operatives whose jobs rest on their political loyalty to one party or the other, Murphy was a career U.S. Customs official who relished the opportunity to tell his agency's story to whoever might be paying attention. His most recent project had been the creation of an in-house television series, America's Frontline, in which he gave his best John Walsh imitation in telling what he called the "exciting real-life stories" of the agents and inspectors guarding the U.S. border. That month's show was to feature Customs agents on a training mission to Uzbekistan, one of the dysfunctional former Soviet republics that was a conduit for drugs and other contraband into the United States. The series had just won a Telly Award for video production quality.
But Murphy never got to make his pitch. At 9:35 a.m. on September 11, less than half an hour after the second plane crashed into the twin towers, Bonner was jolted by the shriek of sirens ordering an evacuation of the Treasury building, which sits across from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. From a window of his temporary office on the fourth floor, he could see black smoke rising from across the Potomac River, where American Airlines Flight 77 had just slammed into the side of the Pentagon. As he rushed outside the building, he ran into Kenneth Dam, the silver-haired patrician who was acting Treasury secretary. Dam hustled Bonner into his black limousine to drive to the secure Secret Service Command Center a few blocks away. Murphy and other senior U.S. Customs officials went the other direction, gathering around the corner in the Customs Situation Room at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, a sprawling structure intended by Congress to "create a national forum for the advancement of trade." The New York attacks had already destroyed the Customs building adjacent to the World Trade Center, which had been the center for all northeast operations, so any decisions on what to do next had to come out of Washington.
Bonner was new to the Customs Service, but he was no novice. Highly ambitious even by Washington standards, he had been a federal judge and had headed the U.S. Attorney's office in central California. While there he led the prosecution of the killers of Enrique Camarena, an undercover American operative in the war on drugs who was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by Mexican drug lords in a gruesome killing that had soured U.S. relations with Mexico in the mid-1980s. As a defense lawyer, he had achieved some small notoriety by defending Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood madam who was convicted on charges arising from running a prostitution ring for famous clients. Bonner had led the DEA from 1990 to 1993 in the administration of the first George Bush, stepping in at a time when the use of crack cocaine had spread throughout the major American cities, driving up the murder rate and sending middle-class Americans fleeing to the suburbs and beyond. He had declared war on Colombia's Medellín and Cali cartels and the network of distributors they had built in the United States and presided over a sharp, but temporary, drop in cocaine and marijuana use. He was later to blast the Clinton administration over rising drug use in the 1990s, saying that its drug strategy "had failed miserably."The Closing of the American Border
Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11. Copyright © by Edward Alden. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Edward Alden is the Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former Washington bureau chief for The Financial Times.
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