Is the Border Vulnerable to Terrorists?

A top adviser to President Barack Obama conceded last week that terrorists seeking to unleash havoc in the United States could use Texas’ porous border with Mexico to enter this country.

During a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, cited a recent government report that indicated more than 45,000 people from countries other than Mexico were apprehended along the country’s southern border in 2010. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper allowed that could pose a significant threat to this country.

“Yes, sir, it does [present a security threat],” he told Cornyn during the committee hearing. “The issues of narco-trafficking and the prevalence of the drug cartels in Mexico is a matter of national security interest to both countries.”

But some security experts say that even with the current turmoil in Mexico, it is in that government’s best interest to do all it can to ensure that terrorists do not use its border to cross over into the U.S.

Of the 45,280 non-Mexicans apprehended in 2010, about 32,900 were detained on the Texas border. The number is an increase from 2009’s 31,750, according to unofficial U.S. Border Patrol statistics provided by Cornyn’s office.

The number of non-Mexicans apprehended last year, despite the increase from 2009, is a fraction of what is was in 2005, the year before Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office and unleashed his war on the cartels. That year 138,700 non-Mexicans were apprehended on the Texas-Mexico border.

Cornyn, who during the last year has called Calderón a “hero” for his commitment to fighting the cartels but also publicly rebuked him for comments he made concerning this country’s drug consumption and gun laws, said Wednesday he didn’t believe Mexico would knowingly allow the activity. But, he said, the country is in peril and anything is possible.

“I don’t believe the Mexican government would ever approve of or sanction people coming through their country to do us harm, but I do know that they don’t have control over their own country,” he said. “Unfortunately the cartels and criminal gangs do have control of significant areas and are more than happy to make money off the transporting of human beings through their country.”

Eric Olson, a senior adviser at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., said the possibility always exists, but that Mexico has no motivation to see that happen.

“They have no interest in having a terrorist organization use their border with us. They would only suffer the consequences,” he said. “Keep in mind that 80 percent of Mexican trade is with the U.S. Why would they ever want put that at risk?”

Olsen said that according to the U.S. State Department’s most recent report on terrorism, there was no indication that Mexico is currently a launching pad for extremists.

“I suppose anyone that hates the U.S. would find a way to get in,” he said. “But so far, most of the cases [of those visitors who have sought to harm the U.S.] have been overstayed visas. They come in through the front door, not the back door.”

Cornyn’s office said the non-Mexicans apprehended on the southern border come from more than 100 countries, including four the State Department considers state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria. The number of countries increases to 175 when the northern border is taken into account. Statistics provided by Cornyn’s office reflect the majority of apprehensions were of Cubans in 2010 at 712. Fourteen Iranians were detained along with five from Sudan and five from Syria. The figures  also include those detained on the northern border.

Despite its designation as a sponsor of terrorism, several Texas politicians, including Cornyn and Republican Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, have advocated for increasing trade with Cuba. According to Texas A&M’s Center for North American Studies, $85 million in goods left Texas bound for Havana in 2009, second only to Louisiana, which shipped $241 million. The U.S. as a whole sent $528 million in goods to Cuba that year, a dip from the $710 million shipped in 2008. Cornyn said an improved trade relationship with the island nation may be a job creator here and should be promoted. But he said it should be explored in ways that will not strengthen the dictatorships of former President Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul Castro, who took over for his ailing brother in 2008.

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