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DHS Secretary outlines plans for Southern border task forces

In a speech today at CSIS, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson outlined his plans for addressing border security challenges. His remarks were accompanied by a Powerpoint presentation that included a number of trend-line charts on the current state of border security.

The major policy announcements in the speech were the development of a new DHS strategy for the Southern border, and the related decision to establish three new task forces that are intended to integrate the activities of its major operating components at the field level on the Southern border. The three key paragraphs:

To pursue this Southern Border campaign plan, we are, first, developing a Department-wide strategy for the security of the Southern border and approaches. We will then direct the resources and activities of the Department’s components accordingly.

Our overarching goals will be effective enforcement and interdiction across land, sea, and air; degrade transnational criminal organizations; and do these things without impeding the flow of lawful trade, travel, and commerce across our borders. We are now in the midst of developing the more specific plan to pursue these goals, and associated metrics. A planning team from across the Department led by Coast Guard Vice Admiral Charles Michel is developing lines of effort, actions, and milestones to accomplish these goals in an effective, cost-efficient manner.

We will then take the logical next step in this plan and establish three new Department task forces, each headed by a senior official of this Department, to direct the resources of CBP, ICE, CIS and the Coast Guard in three discrete areas. The first, Joint Task Force-East, will be responsible for our maritime ports and approaches across the southeast. The second, Joint Task Forces-West, will be responsible for our southwest land border and the West coast of California. And the third will be a standing Joint Task Force for Investigations to support the work of the other two Task Forces.

This focus on enhancing the integration of DHS activities in the field is a very sensible approach; the Secretary is correct when he notes that there is inadequate integration between CBP, ICE, the Coast Guard and other entities in the field. (Even within CBP, I’d argue that its three major operating elements – the Border Patrol, the Office of Field Operations, and Air & Marine Operations – are insufficiently integrated).

But the Secretary’s proposal leaves some unanswered questions:

a) How do these three new task forces overlay and interact with existing interagency centers and task forces at the Southern border that DHS is already participating in, including JIATF-South, EPIC, AMOC, and the Border Enforcement Security Task Forces (BESTs)?

b) What types of activities will the two regional task forces be undertaking? Are they primarily focused on planning, resource allocation, and other strategic issues? Or will they be operational in their day-to-day activities? Will they have an intelligence-related role, and if so, how will that be managed?

c) What incentives will be establish to encourage and incentivize jointness among the DHS component staff at the southern border? Are new programs to encourage personnel rotations or details being considered? Does DHS need its own version of Title IV of the Goldwater-Nichols Act to increase incentives for joint duty among personnel at CBP, ICE, the Coast Guard and other agencies?

Hopefully more information will be provided in the coming weeks that fills in the details about this proposal. But overall, this is a constructive and necessary initiative by the Secretary and his team, one that if implemented effectively will result in improved operational efficiency and coordination in DHS’s operations on the southern border.