Capitol Hill Briefing No. 5

Video and Transcript: David Aguilar on Data-Driven Border Security

Views expressed by any party interviewed by Ideaspace are those of the interviewee and are not necessarily shared by Ideaspace.

The following is a transcript of the video briefing above, lightly edited for clarity and presented here to enable users to search the participants’ comments. 

DW Gibson: Today, we return to the topic of border security– more specifically, what data-driven border security might look like. And we welcome David Aguilar to the Ideaspace Briefing series. Commissioner Aguilar had a 35-year career in federal law enforcement, having previously served as the head of US Customs and Border Protection, where he oversaw a workforce of 60,000 and a budget of more than $11 billion. Prior to leading CBP, he was appointed by president George W. Bush as the national chief of the United States Border Patrol. He previously served as the chief of the Tucson Sector and in various leadership positions in Border Patrol.

These days, he’s a principal at GSIS [a global security advisory firm], where he advises clients on a broad range of national homeland and international security matters, including border security and logistics. From Commissioner Aguilar’s perspective, smart border security is not just about interdicting unauthorized entry of goods and people, but also requires analysis of events in countries near and far. Armed conflict, of course, is one example, and unfortunately, we have a very real example of that with Russia’s actions in the last 24 hours in Ukraine. Perhaps that’s a situation we can touch on as we dive into the specifics here. But of course, there are many global dynamics that play a part when it comes to migration, including extreme weather and international labor demand. So many forces come into play, and we’re grateful to have Commissioner Aguilar here to help us sort through it today. Thanks for joining us.

David Aguilar: DW, great to be here and thank you for the invite. And I agree, I think today is a great day to actually get into this kind of discussion. Great in the sense that it’s a very real-world situation that we’re seeing today. Early this morning, I went to bed at about two o’clock after watching everything that was happening. The expectation right now, as some of us have already seen, is [that there will be] about 5 million refugees going into Poland. Now, the reason I wanted to start here this morning is because this is not the first time we’ve seen this, nor will it probably be the last time.

My experience before today on this was back in 2014, when I found myself in Macedonia, at the Macedonia-Greece border, helping out with the border strategy during the Afghan, Syria exodus that occurred. We have the capability of taking a less reactive and more proactive approach to some of these things that are happening. There’s always a motivating factor. There’s always a push. There’s always a pull factor involved in migration of people. At any given time, depending on world events, there are between 60 and, depending on world events, over 70, 80 million displaced persons throughout the world. So this is something that we need to get better at, managing migration, and get better at receiving people that need the assistance. And especially here in America, a country that takes in more legal immigrants on a yearly basis than [any other] individual nation.

DW Gibson: You mentioned migration management, and I think that might be a [good place to take a] big step back and couch the conversation, or frame the conversation. We hear that phrase coming up a lot in the work we’ve been doing at Ideaspace. And in fact, to put it in political terms, from both sides of the aisle. We spoke with Alan Bersin, who also served as commissioner of CBP, and was President Obama’s border czar. We’ve seen migration management come up in provisions of The Dignity Act, a comprehensive immigration reform bill that was unveiled just earlier this month by Republican representative Maria Elvira Salazar. So maybe it would be good to hear you talk about this framing of border security, because I don’t necessarily think it’s been there for everyone for a long time. But sort of taking a step back from the immediacy of the liminal [border] zone and looking at a bigger picture and understanding that it is in fact part of border security. Talk to us about migration management as an aspect of border security.

David Aguilar: Right. Well, DW, I’m glad we’re beginning there, because words are important. And in the past, everything that we talk about relating to borders … I mean, we’ve defined borders. Do we want to seal them? And do we want to manage them? Is it a governed border? Is it a sealed border? Well, I think that probably the best approach is a managed border. Now there are several areas that affect border security. Probably the most labor-intensive, from an enforcement and security perspective, is migration of people, for obvious reasons. They’re human beings. They have to be cared for. They have to be treated justly. And we should do everything that we can to move them through our nation’s immigration system and network in the most efficient and effective way. So therefore, a labor-intensive undertaking, as it relates to border security. But we cannot forget that border security entails a much more robust environment– weapon smuggling, bulk cash, narcotics. Look at what’s happening today with fentanyl and opioids and heroin and things of this nature. We’re having record years.

So it’s critically important that we learn how to manage each and every one of these. But again, migration is probably the most labor-intensive and most important aspect of border security. Now, having said that, I think, too often, we spend too much time on what I refer to as the juridical line of the border, whether it’s technology, whether it’s Border Patrol agents, aerial platforms, boats in the water, sensors, fences, infrastructure, roadways – all of these things, all of which are important. But we don’t spend enough time and attention on a more robust, more comprehensive, more broad-scope approach to border security. And this is where I believe data management plays a big part in helping assist that approach to border security.

Let me give you an example. We have a tremendous amount of tunnels that are being built below our borders, from California all the way to Texas. Well, one of the things that we used to talk about when I was still in the field was how these people are hiding in plain sight. What do we mean by that? Well, these tunnels are being built in neighborhoods, from warehouse to houses, from houses to warehouse, and so forth. These are very complex operations. Now, some of them are just holes in the dirt, but some of them are very complex. How do they get in there? How do they remove the dirt? How do they move people in there with that amount of skill? They’re hiding in plain sight. Now take that to point-of-origin and migration, regardless of the country. If we can track data that will depict movement of masses of people between point of origin, transit points, arrival at our borders, whether [from] Canada or Mexico, entry into the United States, and final destinations, it would give us that capability to have a greater fidelity of situational awareness, not just on the juridical line, which is where we’re focused today, but throughout the scope of the chain of migration patterns.

Now, in addition to that, [when] you go beyond the data relating to [movement] happening today, it becomes predictive. We have had numerous situations – hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions – that have been very disruptive in some parts of the world, that caused migration. Well, [take] changing weather patterns. How can we get better at predicting what weather patterns are going to look like, how they’re going to affect agriculture, farming, some of these things that drive migration? We don’t do enough of that right now. Before I left government service, we had been, globally, in one of the worst droughts for about 15 years in southern Mexico, the Northern Triangle, and on into Panama. Well, that caused those motivating factors, those push factors, and the pull factor of the labor requirement in the US. How can we use that data to be more predictive and therefore prepare? And by the way, the preparation is not just at the juridical line of the border. [We should ask,] how can we assist those sending countries? How can we prepare them? How can we more effectively manage the potential migration flow?

DW Gibson: Yeah. And so many of those aspects there, I’m so glad you mentioned. It sounds like you’re talking about looking at data on many different time frames, looking at data in terms of seasonal activity, looking at data in terms of annual activity, and then even looking at data in terms of droughts, say, that extend over courses of years. So we’re talking about tiered systems here, in terms of all of the levels at which we can utilize data.

David Aguilar: Yes, absolutely. And by the way, when we talk about data, nowadays, the sensitivities are very high. I am not referring to data that correlates to PII [personally identifiable information], for example. Anytime we talk about data, personal information becomes, as it should be, very sensitive. I’m talking about data that relates to patterns that will depict movement, that will depict that push factor, that will depict what is occurring in the movement and then migration. 

Let me give you an example. As we speak today, the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas is getting hit hard on illegal entrance. Well, it’s historically been one of our most active sectors of operations, but if we had a good data view of [lead indicators, if you will,] of increasing patterns of movement– additional bus lines, additional hotels being propped up, additional flights into leapfrogging territories, not just in Mexico, but from the Northern Triangle, for example – all of these are data points that would assist in painting a picture of situational awareness beyond the juridical line that, given the right time frame approach, could help in managing [and predicting] social costs that are beginning to escalate as these things formulate. Now it’s happening in the Rio Grande Valley. Is it going to shift over to El Paso, to New Mexico, to California? And if so, what are we [going to do]? What can we do to be more predictive? Again, not just from an enforcement perspective, but from a support perspective to the sending, transit countries, arrival locations, and things of this nature.

DW Gibson: Yeah. And to our live audience, just a cue to all of you, if you have questions or thoughts that pertain to anything that’s being said, please feel free to put them into the chat or use the raised hand feature. We’re happy to get to them as time allows. So Commissioner Aguilar, we’ve been talking about this bigger sense of data in terms of weather patterns and global movement, but I think we need to also look very directly at the liminal zone and think about what you talked about in terms of managing the border. And defining for ourselves if that’s, in your take, the best way to approach it. In the act of managing the border itself, there is in fact a different kind of data collecting, right? And not necessarily… I mean, we can talk about personal information. But even when we talk about all of the tools that people get excited about, drones and so forth, these generate, in my conversations with Border Patrol agents, thousands of hours of video surveillance, sound surveillance, movement surveillance. So we have another iteration of data-driven border security, don’t we, when we look directly at the border and how we need to process all of the information that’s coming at us through those new technological innovations. Is that correct?

David Aguilar: Yes, absolutely. In fact, now that you bring that up, we go from predictive to reactive, tactically. And that’s critically important. Because when we find ourselves with a multitude of technological capability on the border, frankly, it’s overwhelming. It still is very difficult for me to walk into a command center nowadays and see Border Patrol agents or other operators, basically looking at a multitude of screens that are dependent on visual human interaction in order to identify any anomaly. Well, we need to have the capability to integrate, correlate, aggregate, evaluate, assess, and act. And [to get] to the point that we can do that technologically, that’s the best situation we can have, because now we’re going to have, not only situational awareness, but anomaly-driven response to what is occurring in that given area of operation.

DW Gibson: And with that more reactive data gathering, that is where we get into the thorny, thorny issue of surveillance and privacy. Do you have thoughts on that? I realize it’s a bigger issue, but just as we arrive at this point in the conversation, I wonder if you have thoughts about that sort of fine balance between making sure that law enforcement has all the tools it needs to do the data collecting, while also being respectful of the communities that are in and around the liminal zone.

David Aguilar: Absolutely. And that’s critically important in all of our operations related to enforcement. The Border Patrol, as an example, operates in urban areas of operation, downtown San Diego-Tijuana, McAllen-Reynosa area of operation, Brownsville-Matamoros. Those are urban areas of operation, where we especially have to be very careful and cognizant of privacy issues, liberty issues relative to constitutional movement and things of that nature, on both sides of the border. We also operate in rural areas of operation, where there are ranching operations, farming operations, and the populace is not as dense as an urban area of operation. And then we have remote areas. Those are the three environments, the very remote areas, such as the West Desert of Arizona, the Big Bend area of Texas, very remote areas where movement of people is minimal. And movement of people that should be there, can be there, we need to identify. So using the technological capabilities that we have – on the ground, in the air, riverine where appropriate – is critically important.

Drones, small UASs [unmanned aircraft systems] that are being used nowadays, are going to be very much a future of enforcement operations. We have certain areas along our nation’s border, both north and south, where we have Native American communities that have ceremonies that should be and are considered very private, very spiritual. And we need to be cognizant of those things. Where we deploy things that might be intrusive, we need to pay attention to that. But that is where the work of enforcement groups, such as the Border Patrol and the CBP, comes into play. Knowing the communities, recognizing the importance of the impacts of enforcement on those communities, comes into play. I’m actually very proud to say that, as it relates to the Border Patrol and CBP, one of their strongest aspects is community, knowing the community, recognizing what’s important to them, and taking that into context when operating.

DW Gibson: Yeah. I think one of the things that’s most exciting about this conversation and this framework of data-driven border security, is that the notion of data telescopes out in this really tremendous way. And I think the most acute way it’s known is the way you just described, that sort of localized human data collecting, right? I’m sure that’s something you might have experienced in your time as the Tucson chief, those human relations and that human data.

David Aguilar: Absolutely. That community relations aspect is critically important, regardless of whether it’s in the urban, rural, or remote areas of operations, because it enables the enforcement assets of our country to operate in that medium that is respective of the communities. And when I say communities, it is both US-Mexico, US-Canada. And allows for that relationship that is integral for success. Some of our best partners along our borders with Mexico and Canada are, in fact, the ranchers, the farmers, the communities, the organizations that are interested, not necessarily in enforcement, but in border management. Look, some of the greater threats along some of our borders are toxic chemicals being dumped into our rivers. It’s important that if an enforcement asset doesn’t see that, does the community see that? Is the community suffering from it? Our law enforcement partners, the International Boundary and Water Commission, CISEN [Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional] in Mexico, RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] in Canada. It’s that integral relationship that is critical.

DW Gibson: Yeah. We heard some of that when we spoke to Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina about the Tijuana River Estuary. And that’s a great example of pollutants and a toxic environment that affects everyone, from Border Patrol to the people who want to swim in the ocean there. And I think you do see those unexpected opportunities to bring different stakeholders together in shared interest.

David Aguilar: Yes.

DW Gibson: That’s the most acute version of data gathering, those relationships between local stations and people in the community. But again, going back out to this place where we began our conversation, in terms of those more anticipatory iterations of data collecting, I want to read something that Commissioner Bersin, who I mentioned earlier, wrote in a paper. “It has become clear that nation states cannot successfully manage migration at the territorial borderline alone.” This picks up on a lot that you’ve spoken about, Commissioner Aguilar. “The boundary, the ports of entry situated on it, and the corridors between them are the last line of defense rather than the first.” And you’ve spoken to that dynamic a bit, but it’d be great to get your direct take on that description. And maybe talk about this sort of balancing act between the sovereignty of any nation state, and the reality that we live in an increasingly interconnected world that requires international cooperation.

David Aguilar: Yes. And by the way, Commissioner Bersin and I go way back to when he was the border czar. He was actually working in San Diego, I was in South Texas, and that’s when we first met. And the reason I mention that is because, between the both of us, we have seen a tremendous transformation of the border, but that transformation has been at that juridical line. So when he talks about the last line of defense, he’s absolutely right. And maybe this will make sense. When I was the chief in Tucson, that was the most active area, and until last year, held the record for the most illegal entrances across the US border, 665,000 over a 220-mile area. So we were so focused on trying to do everything that we could to learn the migration patterns, the push-pull factors, the motivators, and things of that nature. 

We actually coined something that we called the Starlight Theory. And by that, we [meant] the starlight that we see today, that light started traveling millions and billions of years ago. Now bringing it down to migration, those people that are showing up at the border today didn’t start their travel a day ago, a week ago, a month ago. If you go back to the thought process, it was years ago. Could have been because they heard a brother, a cousin, an aunt, or an uncle that had made it into the US during another time frame when it was not as difficult, when it was not as challenging to cross the border. And, in our case, back in 2000 to 2004, we saw a skyrocketing number of deaths on the border [due to] dehydration. And by the way, in Tucson, because of the diverse nature of the terrain where we worked, we actually had situations that at the top of the mountains, in the same 24-hour period, we had people freezing to death and dehydrating to death. During the same 24-hour period!

And we kept asking, “Why is this happening?” Well, because they started their movement, their pathway, thought process, years ago. Years ago. Well, the areas that they were crossing were not as enforcement-heavy [then] as when we were there. Why? Because we slowly built it up. Smugglers were looking for easier ways to get bypasses. That’s where they were taking them. So it’s that Starlight Theory approach that we should take. What is it that we do as a country – countries, actually – to basically portray the challenges, the dangers, the aspect of, “don’t take that risk.” And by the way, if you are going to need to move, take everything into consideration. And we could go on for hours on any one of these things that we’ve talked about, but H-2A [visas] are available. A lot of work that is being done now in agriculture is through H-2A.

One of the ideas that we had … not to a larger degree, and it never really came to fruition, but when we got hit with Hurricane Katrina, the devastation was tremendous. Everybody knew that there was going to be a tremendous need for construction crews and teams, people that were good in construction. Everybody knew that, because of the devastation, there was not going to be enough of that. Why couldn’t we have done a temporary visa, H-2A-like, specific to construction crews, specific to labor that was required by our country? Politically, we were literally thrown out of the room when we suggested that. But is that something we should be doing? The labor shortage today in our country is tremendous. Why aren’t we looking at this? So again, it is an issue of not just the juridical line. Today when we talk about comprehensive immigration reform, it isn’t totally different than comprehensive immigration reform as it was dreamed of in 1986, under President Reagan. IRCA [The Immigration Reform and Control Act], that was comprehensive immigration reform in a very limited fashion. No, this has to be comprehensive from a whole-of-countries, not just whole-of-country, perspective. We have to work together.

DW Gibson: Some really good specifics built in there, in terms of how the data might in fact work with the Katrina example. As our time draws to a close here, I have a good question I received through direct message that I’ll pass along to you. And it sort of ties into where we began. It says, “At the beginning of the event, you mentioned that in the last 24 hours, 5 million war refugees from Ukraine are entering Poland, or are about to.” So talk maybe a little bit about how this technology we’re speaking of would work, in terms of predicting that number, 5 million. Going back in time over the last few weeks, how would Poland’s government have used that information to prepare and react to this influx of war refugees, trying to get as specific as possible in terms of application of data?

David Aguilar: Well, from a global perspective, we have the experience. And again, from a global perspective. Look at that part of the world. Crimea. Now, Ukraine. Before that it was Georgia. All of those caused those mass migration movements. All of those. Macedonia, when I was on the border out there with Greece. So what can we learn from that? Everything from the demographics of the expected movement, what is the demographic? So how do we prepare for that? Do we need more Red Cross? If it’s an elderly movement of people… and these are just kind of the basics. But where are they going to move? What are going to be the requirements? We are quick, globally again, to provide to Ukraine weaponry, capabilities. But what about the expectation of these movements of refugees? We’re reacting now, but don’t we have the experience? Go back to World War II, the biggest migration of humans in the history of the world as we knew it. So what can we learn from those? And how can we better prepare? Technology, data. We’ve been talking about what’s happening today, now, for months. And actually, the intelligence community’s been talking about this probably for years. How do we incorporate those thought processes into preparing [for] and, in this case, supporting that mass migration? Not necessarily preventing it, but supporting that mass movement of people.

DW Gibson: And a big part of that, too, is engaging the international agencies, right? UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], IOM [International Organization for Migration]. In terms of capacity to react to this data.

David Aguilar: Absolutely. And I didn’t state that, because that’s stating the obvious. Yes, absolutely.

DW Gibson: Yes. Well, I want to respect your time and we’ve just gone over a half hour. And that was a great question. If anyone else has anything else, speak now or forever hold your peace. But we are very grateful to you, Commissioner Aguilar, for giving us your time today and your perspective and pushing this conversation forward in terms of how we reframe and rethink about border security. Any final thoughts you’d like to give us?

David Aguilar: Well, I actually find this conversation refreshing, because most of the time when I’m asked to speak on this, it is about the border. It is about the juridical line. It is about what we do now. We need to broaden that scope of thinking as to how to take those preventive measures, how to learn from our past, and very importantly in today’s environment, how we take those informational points to give us the capability to do better in managing our borders.

DW Gibson: I think that’s a very good question and a very good place to end. We’re very grateful again for your time today, Commissioner, and we hope to have you back again sometime soon.

Read More:

Read More: