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Date: How the Government Spends Tax Payers Money on Border Security

In Hidalgo, Texas, a national guard goes about his daily routine in a large capsule-perched twenty feet above a cabbage field armed with a pistol and heat detector lenses. The day is April 17 2012 and the United States government spent 110 million dollars in an endeavor to deploy 1,200 guard soldiers to uphold border security in various parts of the United States. Further west of this border, a Border and Customs Protection agent and a policeman undertake routine inspection of vehicles with flashlight beams before they are guided through X-ray machines designed to detect drugs or hidden people. A single X-ray screening machine of this design costs 1.75 million dollars. On the same night in southern Arizona, an inspector finds something odd in a tractor-trailer transporting charcoal and decides to take a closer look. His sniffing dog finds 8000 pounds of marijuana. The drug sniffing dog costs 4,500 dollars and the government spends 75,000 dollars annually as salary for Boarder and Customs protection officers[1].

As the Congress in the United States lays strategies debates on matters pertaining to border security funding and governors demanding more assistance, investigations have been carried out to establish what taxpayers spend to facilitate border security and whether these funds are used appropriately. It was hard to pinpoint clearly the exact amount of spent on border security, but The Associated Press established it as 90 billion dollars in ten years. These reports were obtained from congressional transcripts through the Freedom of Information Act. With the taxpayers being the source of these funds, the results have been mixed[2]. In this case, border security efforts have amounted to fewer cases of illegal immigrants, but the issue on terrorism and drug supply are stilling major factors.

For example, the United States and the Mexican governments have given significant emphasis on securing their borders mainly to prevent the drug trafficking[3]. However, it is important to understand that the terrorist attacks in Sept. 11 2001 were not from Mexico. Ultimately, these attacks made American authorities to re-analyze border security. Apart from America, the threat of terrorism has prompted other nations as well to become vigilant and invest on border security against terrorist attacks. For example, immediately after the Sep. 11 attacks, various governments around the world worked to establish security systems to prevent their nations to undergo a similar fate.

Over the next decade, annual spending on border security rose threefold as nations endeavored to build unprecedented networks along their boarders, miles of sheer concrete walls and heavy duty fencing and heavy duty fencing, X-ray machines, and an increased law enforcement officers. Additionally, money from taxpayers is also spent on thermal imaging devices, and remote surveillance cameras. Nations such as the United States have high-class technology such as sensors buried partially in the ground. These sensors send alarms to headquarters when stepped on. They are mainly placed in restricted areas or in borderlines.

It is a common theme among many governments to secure their borders responsibly, and look to do so in cost effective means, and the recognition that border security needs are achieved through various distinct solutions rather than a ‘one size fits all’. Over the years, the reasons behind border security measures have changed. For example, border security measures in the United States were a primary response to 9/11 attacks. It has currently shifted to matters of immigration, as well. The issue of immigration cannot be ignored as it has warranted significant debate among many governments throughout the world. However, debates on how best to handle this issue proved fruitless as no viable solution could be achieved. In exchange of reforming immigration policies and laws, governments are now looking towards establishing guards and fences around their boarders. This move is mainly facilitated by non-other than taxpayer money.

The move has dramatically led to the reduction of illegal immigration. A decade ago, border agents reported 1.6 million immigration cases in one year. In 2011, those cases decreased drastically to 463,000. However, it is prudent to understand that employment problems and the recession have played a part in reducing immigration. Nevertheless, this still suggests that finds spent to secure borders against illegal immigrants have achieved their intended purpose. However, the spending has failed to prevent the supply of illegal drugs. In 2011, border guards in the United States seized a record 3 million pounds of marijuana, 4,300 pounds of heroin, and 250,000 pounds of cocaine. In response, the cartels in Mexico attempted to traffic more drugs into the United States[4].

In accordance with the Office of National Drug Control Policy, estimates of 220,000 pounds of heroin in addition to 660,000 pounds of cocaine circle the streets of America every year. Only a fraction of these drugs is seized at borders. With small costs of operation, narcotic dealers are estimated to rake in 25 billion dollars annually from drug sales in the United States[5]. Silvestre Reyes, who once worked as a border patrol administrator, maintains that certain not all vices are 100 percent proof. In this case, regardless of the measures taken, it is not possible to secure the border completely. However, considering the current violence dominating Mexico, Americans living along that border enjoys peace, the Obama administration reports.

There is great emphasis regarding spillover violence and its extent, and United States government has in particular done good to secure its Mexican border. The issue of drug wars and violence has been plaguing Mexico for quite some time and threatens to engage America, as well. The American government has spent its funds well to ensure that this growing threat has been quelled. Any attempt by the cartels to take over the American state would be met with overwhelming response. The same can be said about illegal immigrants because there is an increased number of border patrol and custom officials as well as developed technology.

In 2011, the Obama administration declared a record budget plan for border security. This budget stipulated 240 million dollars for establishing high tech movable screeners and watchtowers along its borders. 229 million dollars was set aside for border agent salaries, and 185 million dollars was for the identification and deportation of criminal aliens in local jails and state prisons. This was part of the 14 billion dollar budget for supporting the developing infrastructure. In the course of the years, budget allocations offer testament to the changing border policies. In 2002, post Sept. 11 security checks along the border lasted about four hours. However, this was until the Bush Administration spent 400 million dollars for the construction of advanced entry and exit system[6].

In 2006, the American federal administration halted a “catch and release” immigration policy that required local police to liberate unlawful settlers if they had not committed a crime. Currently, they are required to face immigration charges. In this case, the taxpayer parted with 327 million dollars for the purchase of new beds for housing alleged unlawful immigrants awaiting legal processing. In January 2011, the Obama Administration disregarded the SBInet, an attempt of establishing state of the art border fence project. Ultimately, this would have cost taxpayers almost a billion dollars and had little improvement on security[7].

Primarily, SBInet incorporated a ‘one size fits all’ system, something that was unrealistic. Rather than this, the federal government should have looked to apply technology based on certain border security needs. Border priorities are now seemingly matched by what is spent. At some point, border security lost its real meaning to mere border protection. In this case, border security should be taken to stand for a move to legitimize trade, reform immigration policies and laws, and reducing drug use. The spending needs to be at per with the intended goals. The main job of Customs and Border Patrol involves defending the United States against acts of terrorism. However, it is the Canada-US frontier that is considered a bigger threat; something that taxpaying citizens were charged 2.9 billion dollars to secure. This is because the government in Canada refused to use the FBI watch list for terrorists[8].

In Texas, many residents consider the 2.6 billion dollar fence winding through the city’s south a waste of society’s funds. Border residents have been used backdrops to political posturing and heated debates about drug policies and immigration. For example, when there was violence in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, the victims were taken to the US in order to seek immediate treatment in a US hospital emergency room. To date, taxpayers have paid up to 4.9 million dollars in trauma care for affected victims. Jails have become overcrowded as local sheriffs have excess transnational gangs to deal with.

However, it is important to understand that some of the government’s way of spending tax money on border patrol expenses has been met with significant criticism. In this regard, the federal government can save up to 2.6 billion dollar tax money every year if it chose to deport violent criminals only. Ultimately, this would end the government’s program of leveling minor criminal charges such as illegal crossing of the US borders. The latest 2012 Homeland security budget has looked to set aside 5.5 billion dollars on custom enforcement and immigration and 11.8 billion on border protection. These figures are nearly double in comparison to the fiscal 2000. Additionally, they have risen significantly from 5.1 billion and 9.3 billion respectively in fiscal 2008.

The reduced arrest cases along many borders are a revelation that this high use of tax money is largely unnecessary. In accordance with government data, border patrol arrests have reduced by twenty eight percent between 2011 and 2012. The data stated that the number of arrests for illegal border crossing is at its lowest since 1972. Hence, it does not make any sense why the government keeps spending more money every year to apprehend reducing people[9]. In accordance with the homeland security, majority of those detained in 2010 and 2011 did not have any criminal ties. If this should be taken into account, then the federal government can save more than 4 million dollars every night if it only apprehends immigrants with criminal records.

Other than detaining, the government can use other means such as unannounced home visits, telephone reporting, and curfews. Roughly, 2/3 of the approximate 10 million illegal immigrants residing in the United States is employed and submitted about 11.3 billion dollars in taxes as of 2010. This data was submitted by the Taxation and Economic Policy Institute. Even though undocumented workers are not in a position to attain social security benefits, they contributed between 130 billion and 240 billion dollars into the trust fund for social security in 2007.

The budgetary trend is an indication of how the United States immigration system has become dysfunctional[10]. Laws and policies currently focus on securing the border and hence deny offering some immigrants citizenship that would bolster the economy and government coffers. Immigrant workers are also important to economy and play various roles such as homeowners, renters, consumers, and taxpayers. Tapping their resources instead of focusing on engagement strategies would lead positive effects to an otherwise dim fiscal and economic environment. The issue of border security had even made its way to the political arena especially on the campaign trail. For example, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney vowed to expand border security control once elected as president. In his view, the any country has an obligation of doing a quality job at making sure its borders are secure. He in particular sited the high-tech fence construction as a good idea as well as investments in resources and adequate work force.

Clearly, the previous ten years have gone to show that investing billions of dollars in technology, beefing up patrols, and barriers have only led to increase in detentions and arrests, and huge profits for Homeland department for security contractors. Even though border security has other implications such as preventing terrorism, but one major purpose involves managing the issue of immigration, and the current resources applied to this course have had close to zero effect. In accordance with a study conducted by Pew Hispanic Center, the number of legal and illegal immigrants accessing the United States each year grew immensely since the mid 90s, hit its pick in 2000, and substantially reduced in mid 2000s.

On this particular period, commencing with ‘prevention through deterrence’ by Clinton’s Administration, spending on border security ultimately skyrocketed. In 1997, the government spent about 340 million on border inspections and 550 million dollars on security. Every year, the Clinton Administration, increased the border security budget. Spending almost grew four-fold, but the flow of immigrants did not cease. President Bush’s era was no different as spending increased with little results. In 2005, the Bush Administration spent 7.3 billion of tax money on enforcing border security. This money did not achieve its goal of reducing immigration. Rather, it only led to an increase in arrests[11]. It has also led to the death of many innocent people since immigrants were forced to seek more remote border routes. It does not make any sense to make the same decision repeatedly whilst anticipating different results.

Most recently, the Obama Administration approved a 600 million dollar budget for border security. Half of this money was intended to cater for payment of 2,000 new border agents. Nearly 200 million was set aside for law enforcement agencies such as Justice Department for US Marshals. Two surveillance drones incurred a further 40 million. This authorized payout represents an answer to president Obama’s call towards intensified border security. Nevertheless, it also represents use of America’s traditional security strategy. Ultimately, this was a course for concern. Recently, secretary to Homeland Security Janet Napolitano authorized freezing of funds for the ‘virtual fence’ that began under Bush’s error in 2006.

The virtual fence had string towers equipped with ground sensors, radar, and cameras intended to detect illegal border crossers. However, this strategy as plagued with missed deadlines and cost overruns. This program incurred a cost of 2.5 billion dollars between 2004 and 2008. Officials in charge of border patrol showed frustration with the technology and would much rather had be assigned more personnel. They were already detecting more illegal individuals than they could apprehend. Hence, the money could have been spent better through employing more workforces rather than investing in technology[12].

Another security measure warranting controversy of government tax spending is the 700 miles fence that has been pending since 2006. An audit by the Government Accountability Office in 2009 revealed that the still unfinished fence would cost 2.5 billion to complete and another 6 billion in maintenance cost for the next twenty years. President Obama’s response to this notion was to send support troops to bolster surveillance and intelligence at the borders. The 600 million dollars budget package was an addition. It funds the deployment of 1000 patrol agents, 250 border protection officers at entry points, and a further 250 intelligence analysts, investigators, and immigration enforcement agents.

Further controversy surrounds the efficacy of border protection strategies; whether funds spent on them have borne fruit. The border patrols in this case may seem sufficient, but many problems are associated with it. All the equipment that facilitates their operations costs too much of taxpayer’s money. The TIME magazine estimated that 400 million dollars was spent in California alone for healthcare treatment on illegal immigrants. CNN claimed that healthcare costs for illegal immigrants in one hospital in Floridacost 43.5 million dollars of taxpayer’s money[13]. In California alone, the federal government estimated that 1.6 billion dollars was the incurred expense on education for illegal immigrants.

These costs are unnecessary since the border patrol is capable of doing a better job. Let alone the costs incurred by the illegal immigrants, the border patrol itself is also responsible for spending a colossal amount of tax money. The reason why applying enforcement only does not work is quite simple. The entry surges began in the mid 90s but did not originate from Mexico. It all started in conference meetings held in Washington DC, Geneva, and London. If numbers should be considered, the 2012-2013 citizenship and immigration portfolio was fitted with several components for dealing with this issue. Yet, in accordance with border control advocates, the premise of applying a leaner budget for delivering long-term savings is a misguided one.

In Australia for example, financial estimates suggest that at least 400 million dollars will be spent for the 2013 budget on security surveillance and response. However, an increase in illegal migrants, in the country, implies these figures may soar much higher. The Australian defense department indicates that most of its focus is shifted on Naval and Air Force security. With regard to these specifics, a naval patrol boat incurs 36,000 dollars every sea day. A much larger ship, the Anzac Frigate, costs 570,000 dollars and a survey ship incurs 140,000 dollars per sea day[14].


Many governments around the world serve have responded differently to national security causes and in this regard, border security. Current government policies, especially in the United States, are under criticism from many points of view from basic cost effectiveness to border control failures and humanitarian concerns. It is also undeniable that the spending is by far excessive hence the need to establish effective solutions that are cost considerate. Regardless of what position one takes the issue of immigration is now a global one. It has become an indictment on the desire of seeking a better life by many and the political frailty gripping many nations. Ultimately, estimating expenditure for defense functions is not a straightforward undertaking. Changes in policies with time and the comparison of costs incurred, inflation and other factors imply that this data is flexible.

As the Congress in the United States develops strategies on matters pertaining to border security funding and governors demanding more assistance, investigations should be carried out to establish what taxpayers spend to establish proper border security and establish ways where these funds may be used appropriately. With the recession that occurred in the recent past, the world is going through tough economic times hence governments need to employ valid programs and policies for spending taxpayer’s money. Ultimately, this basis would assist governments ensure that national security has been maintained, and national funds have been utilized in an efficient manner.


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Condon, Bradly J., and Tapen Sinha. Drawing lines in sand and snow: border security and North American economic integration. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2003.

Hayworth, J. D., and Joe Eule. Whatever it takes: illegal immigration, border security, and the war on terror. Washington, DC: Regnery Pub, 2006.

Hills, Alice. Border security in the Balkans: Europe’s gatekeepers. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Nunez-Neto, Blas, and Michael John Garcia. Border security barriers along the U.S. international border. New York: Nova Science, 2009.

Payan, Tony. The three U.S.-Mexico border wars: drugs, immigration, and Homeland Security. Westport, Conn: Praeger Security International, 2006.

Savage, Michael. Trickle up poverty: Obama’s work on our borders, economy, and security. New York: William Morrow, 2011.

Stevens, Geoff. After Taxes Managing National Wealth. Golden Dog Press. 2000.

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Willis, Henry H. Measuring the effectiveness of border security between ports-of-entry. Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2010.

[1] Ann Judith, Warner Ann. U.S. border security a reference handbook. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010), 45.

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