Any discussion of border security has to begin with an unsparing threat analysis that views the border through the same two-part lens the government has used for generations; first, border security at the legal entry points (or ports of entry,  POE’s); and second, security in the vast spaces between the POE’s.

One government police force, the blue-uniformed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, guards the Ports of Entry. Between the ports, the green-uniformed Border Patrol is charged with enforcing border security.

In the past, the greatest threats of contraband smuggling and human trafficking existed in the long stretches between the legal border crossing points, including the Mojave, Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts and along the Rio Grande River in Texas. That is where most Mexican immigrants once entered the United States illegally, a pattern that is now in steep decline.  A Pew Research Center analysis of government data from the U.S. and Mexico shows that from 2009 to 2014 more Mexican immigrants left the U.S. than entered it. The analysis also shows the overall flow of Mexican immigrants between the two countries is at its lowest since the 1990s, mostly due to the drop in the number of Mexican immigrants entering the U.S.

Today, the transnational drug cartels pose a larger threat to border security than illegal immigration. As the Border Patrol cracked down on human and drug smuggling in the empty expanses between the border Ports of Entry (and TSA worked to secure the nation’s airports), the drug cartels have adapted to focus their criminal enterprises at the new weakest link — legal border POE’s.

For decades, the drug most frequently smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border was bulky, relatively light marijuana – almost all of which crossed through the open country between the Ports of Entry. In fiscal year 2015, marijuana accounted for 99 percent of illegal drugs seized by the Border Patrol between the southwest legal border crossings. However, that represents 99 percent of a dramatically reduced flow of contraband – only 1.5 million pounds of marijuana was confiscated on the Texas border in 2015, the lowest point in over a decade. By comparison, in 2009 about 4 million pounds were confiscated.

At the same time, over three-quarters of the heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine smuggled into the U.S. enters through legal Ports of Entry at our border. This illegal trade, which is estimated to bring the cartels about $40 billion in annual revenue, operates with far better technology, intelligence and mobility than the U.S. government agents employ to prevent it.

As is evidenced by the heroin epidemic across the U.S., the traffic in heroin (as well as methamphetamine and cocaine) continues to rise.

The data shows that the huge investment in border security in the open country between Ports of Entry – the vast increase in the number of Border Patrol agents, 680 miles of border fencing, massive deployment of new technology, increased mobility, improved intelligence and better communications — has reduced illegal activity on the southwest border between the legal entry points. Other factors, including the Great Recession and the legalization of the production and distribution domestically grown marijuana, have contributed to the trend.

As the profitability of human smuggling rose, the cartels made wholesale what was once a retail smuggling industry – and raised prices. They adapted to fences and more numerous Border Patrol officers by using technology and communications to increase the success of their smuggling operations, moving on to smuggling through tunnels and other means.

However, the cartels did not have to adapt their highest margin smuggling enterprises: the trafficking of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine through the legal Ports of Entry into the U.S.

The threat to U.S. security on the border has evolved over the past 15 years: the numbers of people and the amount of illegal drugs entering between the Ports of Entry has declined while the amount of illegal drugs entering through the legal Ports of Entry has skyrocketed.

The inevitable conclusion – obvious to the people on the ground at the border – is that building a wall to stop smuggling and illegal immigration between the ports would amount to re-fighting the last war. The fight today is at the Ports of Entry. To be successful, this war must be fought where we are being attacked.

We do not propose to abandon the fight we are winning against human and drug smuggling between the Ports of Entry, but instead we suggest a Texas Plan to maintain a strong defense in the open country while we harden our weakest points of defense – the legal Ports of Entry.

If the U.S. is sincere about securing the border, defeating the drug cartels has to be Job One. The alternatives to fortifying the POE’s (such as more fencing) miss the target and would have no impact on the cartel’s $40 billion criminal industry.

Between the Ports of Entry, TBC recommends taking advantage of the Rio Grande River by moving boots off the ground and onto the water.

As reported by the Texas Tribune, the Border Patrol maritime force is highly successful at preventing illegal river crossings when they have boats on the water, but they do not keep their boats patrolling around the clock. As a result, smuggling action surges after the boats leave the river.

TBC notes the hundreds of miles of border fencing in Texas. Instead of building more fencing, we recommend the acquisition of sufficient patrol boats and training for agents to patrol the waters of the Rio Grande 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The Texas Plan won’t impact the other U.S. states on the Mexican border: New Mexico, Arizona and California. Since each border region is unique to itself, and one size never fits all, the TBC recommends enlisting the leadership of local leaders in those states to devise plans that will work best to secure their communities.

At the Ports of Entry, TBC echoes the suggestions of House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security Candice Miller that the land ports of entry should be modernized the meet the threat of the drug cartels at an estimated cost of $6 billion. We also recommend that the Department of Homeland Security complete the hiring and training of 2,000 Customs inspectors funded by Congress in 2014 and the funding of the full Customs force identified by the Homeland Security Department’s staffing models: 2,107 additional Customs inspectors and 631 new Agriculture Specialists.

Any increase in staffing must be accompanied by a return to a balanced management structure. The ratio of Customs and Border Protection supervisors to frontline employees is 1 to 5.6 for the total CBP workforce, 1 to 5.7 for CBP Officers and 1 to 6.6 for CBP Agriculture Specialists. This top-heavy structure increases costs without protecting border communities.

As stated earlier, no security effort will be successful until Congress reforms the American immigration system.  TBC supports fair and effective immigration policies that keep border communities secure while recognizing the economic contributions immigrants make to the U.S. and Texas economies. We support an earned legalization program for the undocumented people who are in the U.S. today. We need an effective guest worker program to prevent the repetition of failed immigration policy and politics.  We also need uniformity on the border, such as equal duration limits on Canadian and Mexican visitors who enter the U.S. using I-94 or order crossing cards.

With the implementation of these recommendations, the border can be secured and the other steps necessary to usher in a North American Century can be accomplished.

Editor’s Note: The above essay is the third in a four-part series focusing on a new 20-page policy paper issued by the Texas Border Coalition. It is titled, “Policies and Proposals by the Texas Border Coalition to Advance a North American Century.” Part Three focuses on Border Security (above) and Transportation. Click here to read the Transportation essay.

The Rio Grande Guardian has been granted exclusive rights to first publish the policy paper. Click here to read Part One, titled “Texas Border Coalition: How North America can command the 21st Century.” Click here to read Part Two, titled “Texas Border Coalition: A North American Agenda.” We will publish TBC’s Health, Workforce Training & Public Education, and Economic Development essays in our Sunday PM edition.