On Guns and Violence In the Border Region – More To Do

The ongoing congressional investigations into ATF’s Fast and Furious gun program provides a welcome moment to take a broader look at our government’s overall approach to our border with Mexico and the security threat posed by the powerful Mexican drug cartels.

By almost any measure this administration’s approach to these challenges has been successful so far. With greater resources, better strategies and unprecedented cooperation with our Mexican neighbors, we’ve seen decreases in the illegal flow of people across the border, a drop in the undocumented immigration population in the United States, a plummeting of violent crime along the U.S. side of the border, and increases in deportation of criminal migrants in the U.S., in the interdiction of bulk cash, guns and drugs and in the removal of high level leaders of the cartels in Mexico. Despite the very real threat of violence on the Mexican side of the border, there has been virtually no spillover violence on the U.S. side, and border cities – El Paso, San Diego, Brownsville, Nogales – are among the safest cities of their size in the United States.

Importantly, while ratcheting up security operations on both sides of the border, trade flows between our two countries have not subsided – in fact they are increasing at rapid rates. Mexico now stands as the number two export market for the United States, and is its third largest trading partner. We now trade as much with Mexico as we do with the UK, Germany and Japan combined, and almost as much as we do with China each year.

The “gun-walking” strategies of ATF, begun under the Bush administration, thus need to be seen in a broader context of a much more aggressive strategy by our government in recent years to combat the Mexican drug cartels and improve the border region. These specific gun interdiction programs were designed to attack one of the more pernicious causes of the violence in Mexico – lax gun laws in the United States, particularly in Texas and Arizona, which have allowed hundreds of thousands of guns to flow into the hands of the Mexican cartels in recent years, contributing directly to the deaths of tens of thousands of Mexicans.

In the case of “Fast and Furious,” when this particular operation was determined to have been out of control, the acting head of ATF was removed, the U.S. attorney resigned, the program terminated and an investigation launched. But the failure of this tactical approach to the gun problem, begun in the previous administration, should not cloud the eyes of policy makers to the much broader set of successes we’ve seen in recent years. In fact, it should encourage Congress to be discussing what more can be done to build on our recent success to weaken the cartels and improve the border region. Here are some things that we might be able to do in the coming years along these lines:

1) Confirm a New Head of ATF. ATF has been without a Senate confirmed chief since 2006. Republicans have refused to allow a confirmation hearing for the current nominee, nominated by President Obama in November 2010. Without strong leadership Congress should expect ATF to have management and operational problems.

2) Work with Texas and Arizona to Slow the Gun Flow Into Mexico. While much has been made by Congress in recent weeks of the several thousand guns allowed to walk into Mexico by ATF, the real issue is the hundreds of thousands of guns which have moved into Mexico in recent years from Arizona and Texas in recent years. News reports suggest there are thousands of largely unregulated gun shops along the Mexican border who are knowingly selling powerful “long guns” to the cartels. More must be done to stop these flows.

Along these lines, concerned congressional leaders could take one important step today that would be to condemn the law suit being brought by gun sellers against the U.S. government to block a new common sense ATF requirement that gun shops report the name of any customer who buys more than two high-powered “long guns” in a five-day period.

3) Pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform. While the Obama administration has done much to improve the very broken immigration system in recent years, a smart bi-partisan proposal to fix the rest of the system waits congressional action. The legislation would better regulate the “future flow” of immigrants, which would cut down on the number of illegal migrants coming to the US, and create legal status for those undocumented immigrations already here. While much has been made of the vast undocumented population in the U.S. in recent years, having this many people here in the country operating outside the law every day, many without proper identification, needs to be seen as a potential major security threat to the U.S. Legalizing the undocumented population will bring them from the shadows, allow them to become public and legal contributors to society, and drain the cartels from easy recruits here inside the U.S.

Congress’s recent attention to our government’s strategies to improve the border region and combat the Mexican cartels is a welcome development. But given the seriousness of the issues here, the American people need more than political grandstanding and silly show trials by politicians without better things to do. The response to these regional challenges by our government has been very successful. Our border is safer. Our immigration system is better. The cartels are being weakened. Trade with Mexico is flourishing. But more must be done, and Congress owes it to the American people to stay focused on what more they can to do to build on our recent success, and resist the temptation to score cheap political points on grave and serious matters.

This piece originally ran in the Politico on 11/2/11.