Skip to content

But Wait, There’s More!

April 28, 2010

Like many other policy wonks, I like few things better than a powerful metaphor that describes the state of thinking on an important issue or question. One of the comments provided in response to Jessica Herrera-Flanagan’s post last week presented just such an opportunity. Defining the mission of the Department of Homeland Security — and possibly by extension all of homeland security — in terms of gatekeeping and coordination gave me just such food for thought.

The power of a metaphor is sometimes not what it describes, but what it does not. That was the case for me in this instance.

Having spent most of my career working in or near local government, I have acquired a different, more instrumental view of the role of government as a provider and protector. As such, I usually see the range of options as representing a broad continuum of overlapping alternatives rather than a simple choice between competing conceptions of the good or right. These alternatives almost invariably involve subtle distinctions about the level or nature of the engagement between government and other stakeholders required to achieve a particular set of outcomes.

This framing helps me attend to both the means and the ends, because both matter to constituents and citizens. This is important, because it is often difficult to discern which will matter more in any given circumstance until a particular situation arises.

So what does this continuum look like for homeland security? I equate gatekeeping with command/control interventions where the output (keep undocumented an undesirable immigrants from entering the country) substitutes for the intended outcome (protect individual citizens, the society, its culture, and the economy from the adverse effects of illegal immigration). Coordination equates with little more than avoiding or minimizing conflicts rather than sharing the process of making meaning through the definition and resolution of those conflicts that inevitably arise in any complex, interdependent relationship.

Gatekeeping, as a command/control strategy, does a good job of avoiding the trap of focusing on inputs or input-output relationship while leaving unexplored the larger question of whether or not the output and outcome (secure borders and unfettered liberty) are related much less the same. Coordination all too often falls into the same trap, by assuming too much about the nature of the ends/means dichotomy and the relationships of these parts and the stakeholders to them. Perhaps this explains why our current approach to homeland security, especially as it relates to immigration control, is such a dismal failure?


What then are the alternatives? Before considering alternatives we need to distinguish between means and ends. When we focus on the means, especially when we assume the goals or outcomes are already well-understood and shared by all participants, we may find it both expedient and efficient to focus our energy through command strategies that require little inspiration (especially on the parts of others) and only one-way communication (from us to them).

When the ends are shared, but multiple paths lead to the same destination and there is some risk that participants left to choose their own way will select intersecting paths that create conflicts at key junctions, we may engage strategies that seek to avoid or minimize the potential for such conflicts. Again, these strategies require little inspiration on the part of others. On the others hand, decision-makers and leaders do need sufficient imagination to foresee potential conflicts, especially if you hope to communicate your understanding of the end-game in terms clear enough and compelling enough to gain the parties’ consent to take actions that get everyone to their destination without getting in the each other’s way.

When means are scarce or ends require you to mobilize the efforts of others (sound familiar), a cooperation strategy often makes sense. Such a strategy involves commitments, which require a more inspired view of what’s at stake or what’s to be gained by one or all participants. As the number of participants, the complexity of the processes involved, or the scope and scale of the products expected to result from the processes expand, so too does the need for communication among those involved.

Complex problems, especially those that defy straightforward solutions, usually require a more inspired approach, which often if not always, requires participants to share commitments to both the means and the ends. A true collaboration does not require anyone to sacrifice their identity, but it does require them to work together in ways that create shared objectives and meaning, both of which often take the form of sacrifices for the sake of success.

Each of these strategies builds on the other. Even in a large and complex collaboration, some elements of a shared program may depend upon simpler strategies that involve cooperation, coordination or even outright command approaches. What gives these tactics meaning is the shared commitment among participants to defining when, where, how and by whom these approaches are employed.

What does all of this have to do with homeland security? Well in the case of border control for just one issue, the nation remains deeply divided about the nature of the problem. With the possible exception of the people of First Nations, we share an immigrant past. Our economy today depends in no small way on the contributions of immigrants, many of whom arrived here legally and others who did not. Even those here without appropriate documentation or legal status often contribute not only their labor, but their wealth to support the state and its citizen even when they themselves can neither access nor enjoy many of these services such as health care, social security, workers’ compensation insurance, and unemployment benefits.

The threats posed by illegal immigrants often arise not from their status or their habits, but the criminalization of their status by the host society. When we make it impossible for immigrants to participate freely much less fully in our society, we leave them little choice but to fend for themselves or find another way. All too often, they find the only way open to them is to associate with elements who have no regard for either their welfare or ours.

Applying a different lens to a homeland security issue like immigration and border control allows us to see the folly of our current approach. Gatekeepers can never fully secure our borders. Even if they could, some legal immigrants would find compelling reasons to remain in the country beyond the limits imposed by their visas. Criminalizing their status makes it more difficult to resolve the issues their continued presence presents to both us and them.

When people are forced to choose between liberty and security, as we have seen time and again since 9/11, they will almost always choose security. What then would happen if we choose to coordinate, cooperate, or even collaborate to resolve the issues related to immigration and border control?

Working with immigrant communities, immigrants’ home countries, local employers, labor unions, and government officials at every level to provide legal paths to economic participation and citizenship serves everyone’s interests. Such an approach does not involve an open door policy, but neither does it mean closing the gate after the horse bolts.

A collaboration would require careful consideration of the needs that inspire immigration and provide a safe haven for undocumented immigrants once they arrive. Such an understanding requires two-way, if not multi-way, communication that creates a clear understanding of the labor markets and conditions among all participants so they can craft safe, secure pathways for participation that not only meet everyone’s needs. Doing so would help temper prospective immigrants’ expectations while affording those who play by the rules appropriate opportunities to climb the ladder toward acquiring citizenship or permanent residence.

Such a process would not eliminate the need to set immigration standards, control borders, or deport those who violate the laws. We would still need to apply command/control and coordination strategies, but their place in striking a balance between security and liberty would be better defined and tied to an understanding of the economic incentives that inspire immigration. Moving toward creating such as system would require us to abandon an approach that does little more than make de facto criminals of those who come here to make a contribution that arguably provides mutual benefits to both them and us.

If we want more security when it comes to immigration and border control, we need to acknowledge and accept the inspirational power of liberty, in both an economic and cultural sense.  If we take concrete steps to expand access to it among those willing to work with us to build the nation, we will not only expand prosperity but extend the legacy of diversity that immigration has granted us as well. Together these benefits will almost certainly promote more stable, just, and secure borders and border control arrangements in the process.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: