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By W. Gardner Selby June 5, 2015

West Texas sheriff says U.S. only nation not to use military to secure 'our border'

A Texas sheriff was emphatic about the United States being alone on the planet in relying on non-military agencies to patrol its borders.

Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter also was incorrect, we found.

A Midland Reporter-Telegram news story posted online May 10, 2015 — in the wake of the Islamic State group claiming credit for a failed attack on a Garland, Texas, contest to draw cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad — quoted Painter saying he had no doubt ISIS has "contacts in Mexico supporting them. They’re a huge threat," Painter said, "because it is an avenue of approach to get into the U.S."

Our eyes clamped on what Painter said next: "We’re the only nation in the world that does not use the military to secure our border. We’re not serious about it."

By phone, Painter told us the United States is one of the few nations in the world not using the military to secure the border. He said he based his declaration on news reports showing military forces on the borders of other countries. "All you’ve got to do is look at the news on TV," Painter said. "You see it." He said he didn’t remember which countries he saw on those news reports.

Experts say not so

In contrast, experts we consulted called the Texan’s statement a substantial exaggeration.

That said, some countries have heavy military presences on national borders, such as the forces watching over the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea. Separately, Israel’s 7,500-member Border Police, a branch of the Israel National Police, deals with problems relating to public security, terror, severe crime, rioting, guarding sensitive sites and securing rural areas, according to Israel’s Ministry of Public Security.

In Mexico, a mix of agencies rely on the Army and Navy and the federal police to watch over its borders, Christopher Wilson of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars told us by phone. But, Wilson said, Mexico’s ports of entry are run by the country’s customs service with immigration-related security managed by its Instituto de Migracion. The military branches provide security at the ports as needed, Wilson said, and also are in charge of stopping and catching traffickers in drugs and people.

Wilson said numerous countries similarly rely on military forces to pitch in near international borders in part because some border zones are isolated and other agencies don’t have the manpower. He offered as examples of strong military presences Guatemala and Brazil.

Then again, Ross Burkhart, a Boise State University professor, told us by email, countries don’t deploy troops on borders unless they’re engaged in cross-border conflicts "that necessitate emergency border management procedures. Weak states in sub-Saharan Africa have most recently fallen into this category," Burkhart said.

Lance Janda, a military historian at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla., said by phone that Canada and Costa Rica, which has border guards but no regular military, are examples of the many countries that do not secure their respective borders with the military. Then again, many countries have border-area checkpoints run by officers with weapons, he said. Commenting on the sheriff’s mention of TV news reports, Janda said: "Anything on the news is going to be violence, right? They’re not going to say nothing happened today on the border between Vietnam and Laos."

U.S. Homeland Security

For our part, we checked on how the United States regulates border security, then peeked at how Canada does so. In both instances, the military has not been the primary agency handling border safety.

By email, Wilson said civilian law enforcement agencies handle U.S. border security. Still, he said, "we have securitized border management, rolling customs and immigration functions into agencies that have law enforcement and national security at the heart of their mission."

On its website, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security says it "secures the nation's air, land, and sea borders to prevent illegal activity while facilitating lawful travel and trade."

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Homeland Security’s border security overview says U.S. Customs officials and a record 21,000-plus Border Patrol "agents, agriculture specialists, Air and Marine agents, and officers guard America’s front lines. These men and women prevent terrorists and their weapons from entering the United States while continuing their mission of seizing contraband and apprehending criminals and others who illegally attempt to enter the United States."

Other Homeland Security agencies relevant to border security include the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), responsible for criminal and civil enforcement of federal laws governing border control, customs, trade and immigration and the Transportation Security Administration.

So, the U.S. military doesn’t lead the charge on border security, which is in keeping with the Posse Comitatus Act, passed into law in 1878, which barred the Army from being employed to execute laws unless otherwise authorized by Congress or the Constitution. Still, Homeland Security has a military component: the United States Coast Guard is entrusted with defending the country’s maritime borders.

And it’s not as if military forces don’t get called in. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service said in a February 2013 report, "Although the military does not have primary responsibility to secure the borders, the Armed Forces generally provide support to law enforcement and immigration authorities along the southern border."

Since the 1980s, the report said, U.S. forces including the National Guard, as authorized by Congress, have conducted a wide variety of counterdrug support missions along the borders of the United States." The Defense Department’s "support role in counterdrug and counterterrorism efforts appears to have increased the department’s profile in border security," the report said. Also, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama each authorized National Guard troops to help watch the border with Mexico, the report said.


We didn’t have to venture far to find another country that doesn’t police its borders with the military. Canada’s Border Services Agency says it "ensures the security and prosperity of Canada by managing the access of people and goods to and from Canada." Broadly, the agency says it’s "responsible for providing integrated border services that support national security and public safety priorities."

We spotted no mention of Canada’s armed forces being involved in border security. They’re not, academic experts told us. Burkhart, who helps direct Boise State’s Canadian Studies program, said by email the Canada Border Services Agency handles such duties with support from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in concert with the U.S. Coast Guard under the joint law enforcement "Shiprider" maritime security program in the Great Lakes and the Pacific Northwest. "The Canadian Forces, the name for the Canadian military, does not participate in border enforcement," Burkhart said.

Other nations

To our inquiry about countries using the military to secure borders, Peter Andreas, a Brown University professor, singled out Germany as a country whose military doesn’t secure the border. "Of course," Andreas said by email, "all nations that have a military would use the military if there were a military attack from another country."

In the same vein, Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Foreign Relations, called the sheriff’s claim ridiculous. "Almost all advanced countries use law enforcement officials who are much like our own Border Patrol and Coast Guard," Alden emailed.

By email, Denmark-based author Frank Jacobs advised that most European Union countries don't use the military to secure their borders. He said the Schengen Area describes the EU states and even a few non-EU nations where business people and tourists can freely circulate without being subjected to border checks. Anyone crossing into the United Kingdom faces border checks, he said, though those are handled by Her Majesty's Border Force, which is not a military force, but an agency of the Home Office (Ministry of the Interior). He said that travelers returning to the Schengen Area have to pass through the French douane, but that is not a military unit, instead a part of the Ministry for the Budget, Public Accounts and the Civil Service.

Janda followed up by email, calling the sheriff’s statement "demonstrably false. Most countries in the world use national law enforcement to police their borders just like we do." He added: "The only countries that rely on their military to police/defend their borders are nations facing severe instability involving lawlessness and/or refugees in neighboring countries and/or open warfare."

Our ruling

Painter said the U.S. stands alone in the world in not using the military to secure "our border."

We didn’t have to go far to prove Painter wrong. Canada is one of many countries that rely on federal patrols, not the military, to handle border oversight, just as the United States does. The sheriff might’ve seen some border-guarder troops in war-torn lands in TV news reports, but that’s not factual basis for this claim.

Pants on Fire!

PANTS ON FIRE – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

Our Sources

Email, Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, May 20, 2015

Emails, Peter Andreas, John Hay Professor of International Studies, Watson Institute, Brown University, May 20, 2015

Telephone interview, Gary Painter, sheriff, Midland County, Midland, May 22, 2015

Web page, "Border Police Marks 60 Years," Israel Ministry of Public Safety, April 24, 2013

Research paper, "The Posse Comitatus Act  and the United States Army: A Historical  Perspective," Matt Matthews, Combat Studies Institute Press, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2006

Report, "Securing America’s Borders:  The Role of the Military," Congressional Research Service, Feb. 25, 2013 (accessed May 20, 2015)

Websites, "Secure and Manage Our Borders," "Border Security Overview," "Department Components," U.S. Department of Homeland Security (accessed May 20, 2015

Websites, "About the CBSA," "Who We Are," Canada Border Services Agency (accessed May 20, 2015)

Telephone interview and email, Lance Janda, associate professor, Department of History, Cameron University, Lawton, Okla., June 2, 2015

Emails, Ross Burkhart, professor of political science, co-director, Canadian Studies Program, Boise State University, June 2, 2015

Emails, Frank Jacobs, author, June 2, 2015

Telephone interview and email, Christopher Wilson, deputy director, Mexico Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C., June 3, 2015

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West Texas sheriff says U.S. only nation not to use military to secure 'our border'

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