Bureaucrats and Border Security, part II

Posted: June 27, 2011 in analysis

In part I of this series, I discussed how many people would be available to control the US-Mexican border, if the plan Newt Gingrich proposed in the Republican debate were to be implemented.  For those of you unwilling to click or just scroll down, that number is 55,450, but hereafter, I’ll just use 56,000.

So, how many people would it take to control the US-Mexico border?  First, I take Mr. Gingrich to mean, by “control the border”, to reduce the amount of illegal traffic in people and goods to negligible amounts.  So, how can we tell how many people it would take to do that?

A Guard Every 500 Feet

It is possible that Mr. Gingrich was referring to a popular theory of border security that, loosely stated, is as follows.  To secure the border, we don’t need fancy fences, sensors, air patrols, or anything like that.  Just a guard every 500 feet.  I have searched for the source of this theory, and while it is commonly referenced, it is always in a “I read somewhere” fashion.

So it’s time for a little math.  The US-Mexico border is 1,970 miles long.  To place a guard every 500 feet, we would need 20,804 border guards on duty.  Unfortunately, to have 1 guard on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, forever requires (at a minimum) four guards on the payroll.  Guards need to sleep, to eat, to have days off, and to take vacations.  They need to be kept well trained and briefed on new developments.  They need to be transported to and from their guard posts.  A four to one ratio is probably very optimistic, as it imagines 42 hours of actual guarding time from each guard, each week.

And we haven’t yet accounted for all of the important, direct border security jobs that don’t involve standing on the border looking for people sneaking across, like investigators to find tunnels and other large scale operations, and a reaction force to respond to major violent situations.

But even with a four to one ratio, the plan still doesn’t provide quite enough guards.  Of the 83,216 guards required, there are only 56,000 available.  To implement this plan, we’d have to cut back the guards to spaced out every 742 feet.  Which, on the whole, doesn’t sound so bad in comparison.  If 500 feet works, what would another 240 feet really matter?

But would a guard every 500 feet, or every 742 feet, actually work to secure the border? I don’t have much personal knowledge of border security practices, but my hunch says no.  First off, the idea of evenly spaced guards is just silly.  Certain stretches of border, where cities abut the fence on both sides, obviously require a higher guard density than open tracts of isolated desert.   Also, unless he is willing to shoot suspects (and the United States is willing to allow him to) the single guard out in the desert will not have an easy time preventing a border incursion.  One man, even an armed man, will have difficulty securing a group of any size.  They can simply run away in different directions.  So now we need to clump the guards into effective groups, but the 500 feet has now become several thousand feet, and the immigrants just slip through the gaps.  Of course, technology, fencing, and such can help with this, but one of the key elements of the 500 foot theory, and an implication of Mr. Gingrich’s statement, is that the manpower is the critical missing factor; major infrastructure investment is not required.

In part III, coming soon, we’ll look at how many people it would take to secure the border, using a surprising comparison.

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