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Book Review

‘Border Insecurity’ by Sylvia Longmire

If you want to see American policy-making and politics at its best, avoid the way we handle our borders. From contractors charging massive amounts for useless products to a confused mind-set that sweeps together harmless migrant workers with sociopathic Mexican drug cartel members, there’s waste and misplaced priorities just about everywhere.

That’s the depressing conclusion of “Border Insecurity: Why Big Money, Fences, and Drones Aren’t Making Us Safer” by Sylvia Longmire, a former Air Force officer and special agent for special investigations who now works as an independent consultant on border and drug-war issues. Longmire’s book is uneven in places and not nearly as smooth a read as it could have been but overall is a useful survey of a depressing situation.

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The book’s 12 chapters cover various facets of American border policy from the spillover violence of the Mexican drug war to our broken asylum policies. Some chapters have sharper points than others, but almost all of them suffer from extended direct quotes, structural issues that pad the length unnecessarily, and other shortfalls that detract from her ability to communicate her knowledge.

And it’s too bad because there is a lot of good stuff here. Longmire is a true expert who offers up a readable mix of policy analysis and on-the-ground reporting, and she has a good sense of the different forces at work in the various policy and political fights over control of our borders.

There’s a big gap between what we hear in mainstream debates over the border and what someone like Longmire can tell us. Take the concept of building a fence spanning our whole southern border — which plenty of activists and politicians have called for as though it were a realistic proposition.

But when you actually dig into the logistics and the numbers, it suddenly grows a lot less feasible. In 2009, for example, one government estimate stated that it would cost $22.4 billion to cover the 1,400 miles of then-unfenced border on the US-Mexico border.

Here, a divergence of incentives is the problem: The people profiting off calling for a bigger fence aren’t usually the same ones who have to deal with building or maintaining it. (Actual border experts, in fact, don’t tend to take the idea very seriously.)

Longmire doesn’t quite dig enough into these dynamics, into the forces animating all the dysfunction underlying our border policy. Instead, the book comes across as a somewhat superficial look — albeit one chock full of useful information.

While the chapters on our more famous Southern border have plenty of heartbreaking details about migrants dying because of dehydration, cartel activities, and a variety of other causes, the chapter on Canada is probably the most interesting from a policy perspective.

Throughout the book, Longmire harps on the importance of not conflating everyday illegal migrant workers with drug- and terrorism-related trespassers. The lack of attention paid to the Canadian border is a perfect example: It has an active drug trade (albeit not as robust as the one found to the South) and is a much, much easier entry point for potential terrorists than the more heavily watched Mexican border with its endless acres of inhospitable, often barely-passable terrain.

And yet there’s so much momentum keeping us focused on the South: not just political will, but hundreds of millions of dollars of government contracts for the makers of the latest drones and other military gadgets.

It’s a telling example of how skewed our border priorities are, about the distance between the actual threats we face and the policies we’ve enacted. Even though “Border Insecurity” has some problems, it’s a good introduction to an immensely complex public-policy problem.

Jesse Singal is a senior editor at NYMag.com.
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