Bureaucrats and Border Security, part III

Posted: July 2, 2011 in analysis

In part I of this series, we looked at how many people Newt Gingrich would gain in border security if he implemented his plan to use half of the Washington DHS bureaucracy to supplement the existing border guards.  In part II, I considered if that number (56,000 guards) would be enough to successfully protect the border, using the common wisdom “guard every 500 feet” plan.

We say that 56,000 guards isn’t enough to provide a guard every 500 feet, and I speculated that a guard every 500 feet isn’t enough.  So, what amount is enough?  Here is where I have to start entering the realm of vast speculation, because nobody can really know.  But, there is a model we can use to get an idea.

The Inner German Border

The Inner German Border separated East and West Germany after World War II (it was distinct from the Berlin Wall, which separated East and West Berlin).  It was gradually fortified over the first few decades after the division to prevent East Germans from leaving the county, seeking the economic and political freedoms of the West.  It is the closest historical precedent to a successfully sealed border against economic migrants that I can find.  (I should note that I’m not the first person to think of this; I first encountered it when Alaskan US Senate candidate Joe Miller made the observation, though he used it as evidence for a very different conclusion.)

The comparison isn’t so bad; both borders have a constant pressure of economically motivated people willing to take serious risks to cross them.  It isn’t perfect, however.  The East German emigrants were also politically motivated, and East German border defenses went the other way, since they were controlling exit, not entry.  But it’s the best we have, so let’s take a look at what it took for the East Germans to seal their border.

First off, the East German border police had an estimated 50,000 members to control an 866 mile border.  To maintain that guard density on the US-Mexico border would take 114,000 guards, already more than the 80,000 sufficient for the 500 foot plan.  But the 114,000 guard number needs to be understood in the context of the other border security measures in place.

The physical defenses on the Inner German Border were staggering in their scope and inhumanity.  First, there was a 3 mile exclusion zone along the border, where all entrants had to pass through checkpoints.  People living or working in the zone were highly restricted, and most towns and businesses died or were relocated.

The border itself was a series of walls and fences covering another several hundred yards.   Thousands of guard towers and bunkers lined the border, and elaborate networks of electric sensors and tripwire fired flares alerted guards of incursions.

All of this would be very expensive, but not out of the realm of possibility for the United States to implement in some equivalent form.  However, it wasn’t enough to secure the border.

The East Germans also had extensive minefields and booby traps protecting the border.  There were traditional buried minefields in the open spaces in front of and between the fences, and directional mines (sometimes called spring guns) attached to the fence itself.  Over 1.3 million mines were deployed in total.   East German guards were also ordered to shoot to kill, rather than let someone make it through the border.

Ultimately, once all these measures had been put into place by the 1970s, the flow of immigrants from East to West Germany was mostly stopped.

Now, there are several obvious flaws to this comparison, but none that prevent it from being a worthwhile comprison.  First, as I have alluded to before, the Inner German Border stopped people from getting out of East Germany, and the US-Mexican border needs to stop people from getting in to the United States.  This changes the nature of the defenses considerably.  It is much harder, in the US, to implement a large exclusion zone before the border proper, as the East Germans did.  On the other hand, there isn’t a magic line that a person crosses after which they have escaped.  US border guards can pursue illegal immigrants as deep into US territory as necessary.

Second, the Inner German Border represented the best in Warsaw Pact technology of the 1970s and 1980s.  Surely, the last 30 years of capitalism have brought the US better tools to police our borders?  Yes and no.  While certainly, there are technological advantages that US border guards can exploit (mass-deployed night vision, easily accessible air support, and others), consumer technology employed by border crossers has also improved (it is far easier for a Mexican civilian to acquire a good night vision scope than it would have been for an East German to do so in the 1970s).

A third possible distinction, that the East German Border guards were in place to defend East Germany from a NATO attack, is primarily Communist-era propaganda.  Both NATO and the Warsaw Pact had many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of troops in place for an actual war, and the 50,000 border guards would be an insignificant drop in the bucket of any major major German conflict.

Conclusions

So, what does all this mean?  What would it take to secure the border? Lets just recap the numbers we’ve been through.

  • 20,000: Current number of border patrol guards.
  • 56,000: Number of border patrol guards under the “half the bureaucracy” plan.
  • 83,216: Number of border patrol guards necessary to implement the “every 500 feet” plan.
  • 114,000: Number of border patrol guards necessary to lock down the border the same way the East Germans did.
  • ?: Number of border patrol guards necessary to secure the border without rampant disregard for human life.

What is the final number?  I don’t know, but the models I have chosen predict that it is considerably more than 114,000.

And what does this mean for Newt Gingrich?  Either Newt Gingrich believes that the DHS has more bureaucrats than I counted, or he believes the border can be secured by fewer people than I do.  Or possibly both.

And so far, I’ve been playing very nice with the underlying assumption of the plan.  The fact is, many bureaucrats are important.  Taking away half of the Washington bureaucrats in many departments of DHS would cripple them.  Visa applications, already very delayed, would take even longer to process.  Important logistical activities to make sure the active elements of DHS are equipped, paid, and given the taks where they will do the most good would become that much more challenging.  In short, I believe that this plan would hurt the DHS considerably, in addition to not generating sufficient extra guards to meet its stated goal.

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