Managing Outbound Control on the U.S. & Mexican Border

The illegal exportation of weapons, ammo, technology and people from the U.S. is discussed in this interview with John Woods, Assistant Director at U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement. We also examine the limited controls in place and how it limits effectiveness. He also investigates the infrastructure in place for inbound peoples and goods and how outbound exports are managed without them.

What new technology and surveillance equipment developed for overseas conflict can be used to enforce border security at home? (ex., the automated tracking device initially meant to find roadside bombs), which can now be used to track down illegal border crossers?

We in investigations at Border Security use a tracking device initially meant for roadside bombs to identify illegal border crosses. It’s good for organizations like CBP in identifying and securing the border that way.

We in HSI look at the border a little differently. We look at it as an investigation. We look at the vulnerabilities at the border and establish and identify those transnational criminal organizations that use the border as a way to illicitly move their goods.

That being said, we look at technology such as the control of Big Data and how we can utilize it. Looking at declarations and inventories of things that are believed to be in the country and being able to look for anomalies in that would identify either packages or freight or some sort of trend that would identify illicit movement of goods or strategic technologies, so that we can identify those people and then target them for investigation or for outbound inspection. We look at the equipment or new technology a little differently. We look at more the examining of the Big Data.

Could you provide an example in which this was successful?

Take for example using, combining and putting in data from multiple databases into one analytical support program and then using and dumping algorithms that would look for the anomalies that we would identify for targeting. Another example would be identifying several packages that were being shipped under a false company out of Miami going to South America. We determined that they carried weapons in them and were able to stop the flow of the weapons through this process.

Because with the volume of commerce that goes in and out of the United States, we don’t have the resources to open every container and express package. So you have to be able to find out which ones that you want to target and then target them successfully.

Jumping ahead a little bit, what would be the weakest link currently in outbound control, since that’s your expertise, in the US?

Right now the problem in outbound control is mostly with the people at the land border. We recently went into an agreement with Canada at the land border where we have their entry system as our exit system. So as they identify people and bring them into Canada, we share that data with them so we can identify that the individual has left the United States. Unfortunately, the Mexican border control is not set up in a similar fashion to Canada or ourselves, so it’s not logical that we can use that land border data as an exit system.

So it’s very difficult right now, and the weakest link is probably trying to identify people that leave the United States so we can determine that they’ve left on time, and we’re not looking for people that maybe have overstayed their visa but have left at the land border of Mexico.

Is there a way that you could use the relationship that you have in Canada, in Mexico? Is that something that you’re looking at?

Yeah, unfortunately not because of the way the Mexican immigration is set up. Their checkpoints are further inland than in Canada, so the reliability of the data they collect wouldn’t be good. So they would have to build an infrastructure that would cost them lots and lots of money, to establish the same way we have an infrastructure at its ports of entry.

That being said, we do look at other technologies like license plate readers. The CBP is developing technologies that can be used at both the airport environment and the land border environment to identify people who leave the United States.

Border security, especially in Mexico, is a politically hot-button issue. So how have you been able to navigate the politics of what you do? Or is that not something that you face day-to-day?

Well it’s something that I would face day-to-day, because I’m here in Washington. So I have political ramifications of issues. You know, I have to go before congress and discuss the issues. And you’re right; it is a hot-button issue.

I’ve been in this game for 27 years, and it’s been a very political issue for all 27 years. I came in when they first established the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and they were going to stop the flow of illegal aliens into the country by getting rid of the magnet, which was employment. We were going to have employers verify people. Has that stopped the flow? No. Have other enactments such as terrorism acts, stopped the flow of aliens? No. Because the magnet is still here, this is still the best country in the world, and a lot of people want to come here and live here and make their lives better.

That being said, we did take an oath to enforce the laws, and one of the laws is that you should not come here illegally. So it’s based on the border patrol and our investigative abilities. That’s where our best bang for our buck is; to go after the smuggling organizations that facilitate the illegal alien entries and stop the flow that way. We use various technologies such as a metal chain-link fence or an electronic fence that has sensors in the ground to identify those illegal crosses and better use our resources to apprehend them and stop them from entering the United States.

So what is the biggest threat to U.S.? Is it economic or loss of intellectual property by the illegal exportation of our technology?

That, to me, is a big threat. I mean, I oversee the export enforcement role here in HSI, and I feel that our strategic technologies either being a.), stolen, or b.), just purchased and illegally exported without license, is a very huge threat to our national security.

We have advanced technologies that make us a great nation, that protect us from our enemies, and by allowing any of those materials to fall into enemy hands defeats our ability to have the upper hand. So we need to protect and ensure that those technologies that are licensable and eligible for export only go to the right hands, which would be our friends and people that we want to trade with. We want to make sure that those items also fall in the right hands and are not used against us. So it is a huge threat.

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