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Lesson with Alan Bersin, former Commissioner of CBP and DHS Under Secretary for Policy

A welcome and course overview from Alan Bersin

A welcome from Alan Bersin.

Course Overview

This course provides an overview of the strategic context for border management and the evolving threats and challenges caused by rapidly accelerating trans-national flows of people, goods, money, and information. It then gives a thorough grounding in the core concepts of securing trade, travel, migration, and data that are essential to effectively operating in this dynamic environment. This course provides officials across the homeland security enterprise and private industry with a strategic framework that connects the work of individuals and organizations to the modern globalized context. 

Learning Objectives

Borders are unique. They are places where countries begin and end, cultures meet and meld or conflict, governments have extraordinary power, and political and international conflicts arise. Borders are as old as recorded history, but they are dynamic places—and they are undergoing profound changes right now. Governments and society are struggling to make sense of these changes and their implications for economies, national security, public safety, and national identity, and the border is increasingly driving political controversies and crises. This course provides a strategic exploration of borders: what they are, how they are changing, and how we are trying to manage them effectively during a period of profound change.

Module Descriptions and Key Concepts

Module 1: Borders as lines, borders as flows 

Module 1 introduces the central concept of modern border management: that borders have evolved beyond the Westphalian concept of physical lines that simply separate countries and must now be treated as flows of goods and people, both legal and illegal, that must be addressed comprehensively. It includes historical perspective on the evolution of borders, with a particular emphasis on the American experience, and describes how globalization has challenged traditional paradigms.

Westphalian: The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the devastation of the 30 Years War in 1648, is a landmark event in the development of nation-states that helped lead to the modern form of borders. The 30 Years War combined the ongoing German religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants with a struggle for continental dominance between the French Bourbon and Spanish/Austrian Hapsburg monarchies. These conflicts were conducted largely by proxies, with foreign and mercenary armies repeatedly violating the sovereignty of the central European kingdoms and principalities where the war was fought. Many of the most important actors in the war, including France’s Cardinal Richelieu and the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, lived in countries where no fighting occurred. The end of this war and the treaties that were concluded as part of the Peace of Westphalia enshrined key doctrines of international relations and law: the principles of the territorial sovereignty of nation-states behind national borders and non-interference in the domestic matters of sovereign states.

Globalization: Globalization describes the process of increasing international integration that has characterized the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. For the purposes of this course, the most notable impacts have been in the areas of:

  • Travel 
  • Trade and Supply Chains 
  • Financial flows 
  • Information and digital networks 
Module 2: Globalization: The evolution of borders and the interconnected world of trade, travel, money, and information

The international flows of travelers, trade, information, and money continue to grow in volume and accelerate in speed. These flows continue to challenge border management officials and have led to the emergence of new border management strategies like traffic segmentation and risk management. These processes allow a higher level of security while at the same time facilitating legal trade (estimated to be 98% of all trade flows globally). Module 2 discusses the changes that have occurred and provides a detailed overview of the shifts that have driven this evolution.

Risk segmentation: Risk segmentation is the process by which authorities separate goods or people based on the level of risk they pose. This often involves a process of risk scoring, where the available information is used to quantify the level of potential threat and uncertainty about a person or entity. Some countries will separate out cargo and people who are known to pose low risks through trusted traveler and trusted shipper programs, which frees up inspection resources for other tasks. It is in the interest of border authorities to spend as little time as necessary on people and cargo who are known to be low risk, so that the limited inspection resources available can be focused on those who pose a higher risk or about whom comparatively little is known.

Risk management: The traditional approach to border security, where goods and people are independently inspected as they present at the border, has been overwhelmed by globalized flows of trade and travel. Risk management describes the manner in which authorities allocate security and inspection resources to match the level of risk identified through the process of risk segmentation.  

Facilitating trade: One of the most significant responsibilities of border managers is to facilitate legal trade. Cross-border traffic tends to be concentrated into a comparatively small number of ports of entry, which are the locations at the border where goods and people may lawfully enter a country. Because of this, operations in these locations have outsized economic impacts around the country, and delays at this limited number of ports can have significant consequences.   

Module 3: The underworld of globalization: Stateless threats, organized crime, and international terrorism

Transnational threats have grown in parallel to the lawful commerce and connectivity enabled by globalization. The growth and evolution of transnational threats, including terrorism and transnational organized crime, has fundamentally changed the way borders must be managed. This module provides detailed background on the shifts and the way that they have strained traditional approaches to border managementlaw enforcement, and national security.

Border management: Border management describes the strategies, policies, programs, and tools governments use to process legitimate trade and travel through legal ports of entry, identify and stop potentially dangerous people and goods within the flows of lawful traffic, and prevent illegal entries between the ports of entry (preventing illegal entry between the ports of entry and interdicting narcotics and other contraband at ports of entry is what is most commonly meant when people talk about “border security”). 

Law enforcement: Law enforcement is the use by a country of its criminal justice authority over people, entities, and things within the country’s jurisdiction. It is fundamentally a domestic activity. International law enforcement relies on voluntary partnerships across jurisdictions and treaty agreements. As transnational and borderless threats escalate, international law enforcement partnerships are becoming increasingly important. 

National security: In the modern United States, the term “national security” is largely used to describe military and intelligence activities conducted internationally against foreign actors and threats. This is in contrast to the term “homeland security,” which is used to describe non-military threats within a country to civilians and their vital interests. As the threats enabled by globalization expand, the bright line separating national security from other security activities continues to blur.

Module 4: Irregular migration and the evolving challenge of border security 

Migration crises are escalating around the world, as significant numbers of vulnerable people have fled difficult and dangerous conditions in their home countries. This new wave of immigration profoundly challenges traditional immigration and border management systems, and it is increasingly driving political disputes. This module examines how migration flows have shifted and the implications of these changes for security and border management. 

Migration crises: Migration crises occur when large numbers of people overwhelm existing border management and immigration processing systems. These crises arise from the confluence of conditions that incentive people to leave their home countries (e.g. war, natural disaster, lack of opportunity) and/or the perceived receptivity of destination countries to accept irregular migrants (e.g. policy change that may allow more people to apply for asylum). Dramatic migration crises have occurred in the last decade with migrants attempting to enter Europe either overland or by crossing the Mediterranean, with Venezuelans moving to other locations in South America, and with Central American migrants transiting Mexico to arrive at the U.S. southwest border. Migration crises are likely to continue, if not accelerate, in the coming decades, especially because of the effects of climate change in developing areas of the world. 

Immigration: Immigration is the process by which people lawfully move to another country. Each country sets and enforces limits and requirements for new citizens and residents. All countries limit immigration and make efforts to determine which people are eligible to enter and stay. Illegal or undocumented immigration refers to people who have either crossed the border between the ports of entry or entered a country legally but stayed after their visa or other authorization expired. The United States has an unusual situation where there has been a significant population of people living and working in the country without legal status over recent decades (estimated at 11 million individuals). 

Module 5: Securing the movement of people 

This module examines the changes that have been implemented to secure the movement of people, particularly those implemented in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It explains the development of a new security regime organized around risk management, targeting and utilizing advance information

Targeting: Targeting is the process by which border authorities evaluate information about travelers and goods to identify those that potentially pose threats or for whom additional scrutiny is required. This can be done by matching specific intelligence about threats—things like terrorist watchlists or law enforcement warrants—or by using sophisticated algorithms and data analytics to identify potentially suspicious activities or connections.  

Advance information: Collecting and analyzing information about goods and people before they depart another country is an essential element of modern border management. Rather than deciding whether someone or some cargo presents a threat after it has arrived at the border, advance information allows authorities to make risk determinations in advance and to allocate their inspection resources accordingly.  

Module 6: Securing the movement of goods

Border authorities have had to dramatically shift their approach to security in response to massive increases in cargo shipping. This module explains how the volumes and complexity of modern supply chains have made physically inspecting most goods impossible, led to increases in contraband smuggling (in particular narcotics), and led to the development of sophisticated risk management systems and new forms of public-private partnerships. The model also addresses the special challenges of supply chain visibility that have been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Supply chains: Factory production processes have now become internationally distributed, with a finished product like an automobile being moved across borders at multiple stages in the manufacturing process and being made from components sourced from around the world. The result of this is that good are produced more efficiently and marketed more cheaply than ever, but also that the provenance of goods can be murkier than when centralized assembly lines and nationally sourced components dominated production processes. Modern supply chains present significant challenges like identifying products produced from forced labor and intellectual property right violations.  

Public/private partnerships: In the context of borders, these are partnerships between government and industry to enhance security and trade facilitation. Examples could include a project to privately build a new port of entry and fund government security operations with fees collected from crossers, or an initiative to share logistical information collected by air carriers with government counterparts in exchange for expedited cargo processing.  

Module 7: Securing borders between the ports

Apprehending irregular or undocumented migrants between the ports of entry is what most people are thinking about when they talk about border security. The rise of transnational organized crime and global migration flows have overwhelmed traditional systems, however. This is leading to the development of integrated, binational systems to jointly manage borders. This model describes the progress made to date and opportunities for further advances.

Irregular or undocumented migrants: People who are present inside a country without authorization have been referred to by many different terms, from alien to illegal immigrants to undocumented migrants. The questions of whether people who are present in a country without legal status should be given status and under what terms is consistently contentious. This is the part of border management that causes the most extreme political responses and generally has the highest political and emotional profile. 

Ports of entry: These are the only locations where people or goods may legally move into or out of a country. Ports of entry include land ports, sea ports, and airports. Because of air travel and air cargo, many ports of entry are now not located on physical borders. The United States has 328 ports of entry, though the traffic is very concentrated and a comparatively small number handle the majority of the volume of trade and travel.  

Module 8: Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and the future of border management

Modern trade and travel networks generate extraordinary amounts of data—so-called Big Data. Effectively analyzing and exploiting this information to guide enforcement operations is a primary task of modern homeland security officials. Rapidly increasing cyber vulnerabilities and the use of cryptocurrency to enable instantaneous, irreversible cross-border financial transactions have further complicated these efforts, as has the unsettled political debates around appropriate privacy and civil rights and civil liberties restrictions. This module explores the rise, challenges, and opportunities of big data and the impacts on security and law enforcement officials. 

Big DataBig data has been defined as “high-volume, high-velocity and/or high-variety information assets that demand cost-effective, innovative forms of information processing that enable enhanced insight, decision making, and process automation.”i It is, in other words, data that is so voluminous and/or complex that it cannot be effectively analyzed and used absent the help of computer systems. 

Cryptocurrency: Cryptocurrencies are digital currencies that have been recently created by non-governmental entities using blockchain technology. These currencies do not exist in physical notes or coins but instead exist electronically. Cryptocurrencies are usually exchanged digitally with someone without a traditional financial intermediary like a bank. These currencies have traditionally not been used to facilitate consumer transactions but are now starting to be accepted as valid forms of payment. Cryptocurrencies have been favored by criminal groups and other malicious actors because of the anonymity they offer, lack of transparency to government authorities, and ease of online transactions. The most well-known cryptocurrency is Bitcoin, but there are many others (so-called “alt-coins”) as well as blockchain alternatives such as Ethereum. 

Privacy: Privacy refers to the right or ability of a party to “maintain control over and confidentiality of information about itself.”ii The increasingly digital nature of modern society, which includes the vast amounts of hugely personal information that now exist in digital form, has raised fundamental questions about what data and information governments should be able to access, and under what conditions government should be able to act on that information. In the case of border management, privacy issues present unique challenges as different governments and society have different expectations of what information should be private. This presents a key challenge in bilateral or multilateral border management collaboration.

Civil rights and civil liberties: Civil rights and civil liberties refers generally to the baskets of rights and liberties a citizen of country has and which government is generally prevented or limited from infringing. In the United States, for example, these rights include the rights to free speech, religion, and assembly; the prohibition on unreasonable government searches and seizures; and nondiscrimination. 

Imagine this Scenario

People often assume that borders present a straightforward issue: someone crosses the border when they cross a country’s boundary line. But is it that simple?

Imagine a person flying back from a vacation in Montreal, Canada, to their home in Chicago. They check in for their flight in Montreal and head for their gate. After clearing security, the traveler is directed to a booth for . . . U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The traveler is still in Canada and within Canada’s jurisdiction, but they are being cleared for admission into the United States by U.S. federal agents. After clearing U.S. immigration in Canada, the traveler flies home to Chicago, and simply picks up her bag and leaves the airport. Where was the border?

Our traveler was on a business trip in Montreal, meeting with executives from a European shipping company located in the European Union, whose container ships are flagged in Panama. Our traveler’s extremely expensive and time-sensitive goods are currently in a shipping container being transferred in the port of Singapore and about to be loaded onto the ship for shipment to the Port of Long Beach in California. A question arises as to whether the supply chain that supports our traveler’s manufacturing in Vietnam has been compromised by a supplier located in Malaysia engaged in forced labor. A decision must be made as to whether to load and ship the goods. Which countries’ laws govern the decision?

Our traveler may not be so innocent, however. Mixed among the goods in the traveler’s shipping container is contraband, opiate-based narcotics, that were supplied by a transnational criminal organization with terrorist ties based in Laos. U.S. Intelligence authorities identified the cargo shipment as suspect, and the information was shared with the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. The drugs were supposed to be offloaded before the container reaches the United States, so the Coast Guard stops the ship in international waters before our traveler returns from Canada to the United States. What do they do with the contraband? Which country has jurisdiction over the traveler?

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Module 1: Borders as Lines, Borders as Flows

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Module 2: Globalization: The Evolution of Borders and the Interconnected World of Trade, Travel, Money, and Information

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Module 3: The Underworld of Globalization: Stateless Threats, Organized Crime, and International Terrorism

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Module 4: Irregular Migration and the Evolving Challenge of Border Security

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Module 7: Securing Borders Between the Ports

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Module 8: Big Data and the Future of Border Management

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About the Instructors


The instructors are partners at New Macro Risks, a business intelligence firm providing strategic insights into today’s most pressing homeland security challenges.

Alan Bersin has held numerous high-level positions at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Department of Justice. Most recently, after serving as the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Bersin served as the Assistant Secretary for Policy and Chief Diplomatic Officer for DHS. Previously, he was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California. He also served as a Vice President for the Americas and on the Executive Committee of INTERPOL. Bersin is a Global Fellow with the Wilson Center and a Senior Fellow with the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Nate Bruggeman held senior policy positions at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection addressing border security, law enforcement intelligence, and U.S.-Mexico engagement. He has also had a distinguished legal career, most recently at the Colorado Department of Law and previously in private practice. Bruggeman is a Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center’s Homeland Security Project and the Executive Editor of its Homeland Security Policy Paper Series.

Ben Rohrbaugh has been at the forefront of border and supply chain security and advancing U.S.-Mexico relations for over a decade. Rohrbaugh held senior policy positions at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and he was a Director on the White House’s National Security Council where he developed policy on border and supply chain security issues. Rohrbaugh is currently a Fellow at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas-Austin, and he is the author of the acclaimed More or Less Afraid of Nearly Everything: Homeland Security, Borders, and Disasters in the Twenty-first Century.

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