Jun. 2, 2013
TUCSON, Ariz. — A long, sharp, high-pitched beep sounds every 30 or 40 seconds at the Border Patrol’s windowless sector-control room.
Agents here monitor a vast array of video screens and sensors linked to cameras, radar and other surveillance equipment along 262 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border — including hundreds of ground sensors that beep loudly whenever one detects something.
That something might be a drug smuggler or a migrant — but far, far more often, it’s a cow, or the wind, or some other false alarm, which may be why the agents seem to pay these constant beeps little mind.
To complement the 651 miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexican border, Customs and Border Protection deploys drones, tethered radar blimps, P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft, thermal-imaging devices, towers with day and night video cameras, ground surveillance radar and much more.
But, as the ceaseless beeping of the sensor alarms illustrates, many pieces of that technology are flawed: Some produce frequent false alarms, some suffer detection failures or leave gaps in coverage. Then, too, CBP — despite spending more than $106 billion over the past five years militarizing and securing the border — struggles to mesh these pieces smoothly together so it can make good use of the data they provide.
The bill also mandates hiring another 3,500 CBP officers (who work at ports of entry, versus Border Patrol agents, who work the rest of the border), a 16-percent increase, among other provisions. And it would require the Border Patrol to apprehend or turn back 90 percent of would-be border crossers.
Within Congress, tighter border security has been treated as a precondition for any reform of immigration policy, but many analysts and academics who study the border express doubts about the need for more fences, agents and surveillance.
The number of Border Patrol agents nearly doubled over the last seven fiscal years, to 21,394. But over that time period, the number of migrants heading north plunged — mostly because of the U.S. economic downturn, most analysts say, but also in part because of the increasing dangers of going north as more fences and surveillance pushed crossers into more remote areas. Border Patrol apprehensions fell 69 percent over those years, from nearly 1.2 million to fewer than 365,000.
In 2005, Border Patrol agents apprehended an average of 106 people a year apiece. Last year, each agent apprehended an average of 17 people, or about one person every three weeks. In the Tucson Sector, each agent averaged 28 apprehensions a year, or about one every 13 days. In Yuma, each agent averaged one every two months. In the El Paso Sector, the least busy, each agent averaged 3.5 apprehensions a year.
“On a lot of parts of the border, it’s gotten to the point that every person we put out there makes less and less of an additional difference,” said Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin American program at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based think tank that seeks to connect academic research to public-policy discussion.
Complicating this picture is the fact that over the six months ending in March, Border Patrol apprehensions along the Southwest border climbed 13 percent from a year earlier, to just over 189,000. Most of that increase is happening in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. Even with this rebound, apprehension numbers over that period are still the third lowest since 1972, above only last year and the year before.
Looking at the current state of border security, most analysts agree on some needs — such as improving radio communications — but some say CBP really should focus on what it has in hand.
“It’s not just putting a surveillance camera somewhere and you’re done; the challenge is integrating the data into Border Patrol operations. … The Department of Homeland Security (which includes CBP) needs to step back … and integrate the technology they have now before they get any new technology,” said James Lewis, director of the technology and public-policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a conservative D.C. foreign-policy think tank focused on political, economic and security issues.
Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said what is “really needed is a serious management effort to see what works and what doesn’t.” The lack of such an assessment “is at some level an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars, given that we spend $18 billion a year on immigration enforcement,” added Alden, one of the authors of a recent study on the effectiveness of border enforcement.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, one of the “Gang of Eight” promoting immigration reform in Washington along with Arizona’s other Republican senator, John McCain, said Saturday that the issues of added border security and technology snafus have been thoroughly discussed.
“We believe the situation clearly is better on the border than in times past; the frustration with all of us is with conflicting information out of DHS. Within the same report, they’ll use increased apprehensions to signal success, and decreased apprehensions to signal success,” Flake said.
“We haven’t had a comprehensive plan by the Border Patrol to reach certain metrics of effectiveness. We did come to the conclusion that more barriers in certain places, more manpower where they need it and more technology would help … but in combination with employer enforcement, and a legal framework for people to come in.”
The Republic made several requests to interview Mark Borkowski, the CPB’s assistant commissioner in charge of technology and acquisition. DHS and CPB did not make him or other agency officials available.
Faulty ground sensors
The ground sensors offer one example of the challenge of making sure technology works properly. About 13,400 have been deployed piecemeal along the border over several decades. They are typically placed along known or suspected migrant or smuggler routes, and may detect vibrations (for foot traffic), metal (for vehicles) or have acoustic or infrared sensors. Sensors from the Vietnam War era remain in use.
A possible false alarm from a ground sensor, and faulty radio communications, may have contributed to the death of Border Patrol Agent Nicholas Ivie in a friendly-fire incident Oct. 2. As is often the case with sensor alarms, agents didn’t detect anyone but each other when they arrived. Ivie, responding separately, apparently mistook the other agents for smugglers and opened fire. One of the agents shot and killed him.
But false alarms are nothing new.
In 2005, Homeland Security’s inspector general reported that only 4 percent of the alarm signals detected migrants or smugglers (34 percent were confirmed false alarms, 62 percent couldn’t be determined). The sensors, which run on batteries, frequently fail because of corrosion or bugs eating through wires.
They were supposed to be replaced as part of the $1.1 billion Secure Border Initiative, a massive 2006 effort to boost security at the border. But most of the money was spent on a problematic network of high-tech towers, known as SBInet.
The towers, to be equipped with video and infrared cameras and radar, were to cover the whole border. By the time Homeland Security pulled the plug in 2010, after a host of problems, the contractor, Boeing, had completed only 15 towers covering a 72-mile stretch of Arizona’s border. Most of the old ground sensors — with their false-alarm problems — remained.
In January 2011, Homeland Security launched another initiative, the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan.
That plan called for spending $1.5 billion over 10 years to integrate the SBInet towers, build new camera towers, buy trucks loaded with surveillance gear — and replace 525 ground sensors in Arizona with more sophisticated military models. The military sensors use a combination of technologies that can distinguish more accurately between, say, a four-legged coyote and the two-legged kind, and can even detect the direction of travel.
But CBP confirmed this past week that — eight years after the problems were identified — the sensors still had not been replaced.
However, under the new technology plan, Arizona agents have received:
Twenty-three hand-held thermal-imaging devices (like night-vision binoculars).
Two “scope trucks” – modified Ford 150 4×4 trucks with day and night cameras mounted on retractable poles.
Twelve “agent portable surveillance systems,” which include radar, video and infrared video sensors and can be carried in a box and set up on tripods.
Drones, too, have proven problematic. So far, CBP has acquired 10 drones, all versions of the Predator B made by General Atomics, for about $18 million apiece. CBP’s unarmed drones carry radar, video and infrared sensors.
Theoretically, the drones can fly for up to 20 hours at a time. But last year, according to CBP, the drones flew an average of 94 minutes a day. The main problem: CBP spent so much of its budget buying the drones that it hadn’t set aside enough to operate them.
“They’re on the ground most of the time for lack of funding,” said Adam Isacson, a regional security-policy analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights organization that studies the effects of U.S. policies on Latin America. “They cost $3,234 an hour to operate. They haven’t had the budget for maintenance or crews.”
Last year, Homeland Security’s inspector general found that, because of poor planning, CBP not only flew the drones less than one-third the number of planned hours in 2011, but also had to use $25 million from other budgets pay for the hours the drones did fly.
CBP also didn’t have enough operational support equipment at the airfields where the drones are based, and didn’t prioritize missions effectively, the inspector general found — all findings with which CBP concurred. Flight hours last year rose 30 percent from the year before, to 5,700, but were still well below half the target hours. Budget cuts this year because of the congressional sequester are likely to further limit flight hours, Isacson said.
The drones are sensitive to high winds and thunderstorms. They face Federal Aviation Administration flight restrictions because they are less able than manned aircraft to detect other aircraft and avoid collisions. And their use raises privacy concerns.
At a Senate hearing in March, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., cited reports that “DHS has customized its drone fleet to carry out domestic surveillance missions such as identifying civilians carrying guns …” that fly in the face of civil liberties. “We must ask whether the trade-off in terms of border security is worth the privacy sacrifice.”
But CBP officials have said they believe FAA concerns and other issues can be addressed, and that drones can help increase surveillance wherever it’s most needed.
In practice, every piece of technology at the border has limitations:
Eight aerostats, or tethered radar blimps, that CBP is taking over from the military, can’t be flown in high winds, and the line-of-sight radar makes them less effective in rugged, mountainous areas, which is much of the Tucson Sector. In May 2011, an aerostat crashed in a Sierra Vista neighborhood after coming loose in 50-mile-an-hour wind gusts.
CBP limits the use of its 16 Blackhawk helicopters because the high rate at which they guzzle fuel makes them very expensive to operate, according to pilots; and CBP budget documents confirm plans to temporarily ground nine of the 16 Blackhawks next year pending enough money for renovations.
The 16 workhorse P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft are, on average, 42 years old. Refurbishing costs $28 million apiece.
But the bigger issue is a lack of coordination in fitting all of the pieces together and making effective use of the data they provide, said Rick Van Schoik, director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University in Phoenix. “It’s still hard for CBP to figure out what we get out of all these billions that have been spent,” he said, which hampers planning for the future.
Others argue that focus now should be on the ports of entry rather than on the vast spaces between them.
By some estimates, as many as 40 percent of undocumented migrants are people who entered legally through ports of entry and overstayed their visas, said Eric Olson, at the Wilson Center. And, according to CBP data, most hard drugs are smuggled through the ports.
“A strong case can be made now that the biggest risks are at the ports of entry,” Olson said.
Olson supports the bill’s call to add 3,500 more CBP officers, which he said also potentially “has a huge benefit, which is making the ports more efficient and reducing wait times for business and for legal travelers between the U.S. and Mexico.”
Outside analysts aren’t the only ones suggesting Congress reconsider its focus on more security.
A May 3 Congressional Research Service study invited members of Congress to consider that “certain additional investments at the border may be met with diminishing returns.” Some lawmakers, the report said, “may question the concrete benefits of deploying more sophisticated surveillance systems across … vast regions in which too few personnel are deployed to respond to the occasional illegal entry that may be detected.”
For their part, Homeland Security, CBP and Border Patrol officials in recent months reiterated Secretary Janet Napolitano’s insistence that the border is more secure than ever before. And Assistant Commissioner Borkowski earlier this year made it clear CBP learned one lesson from its past struggles with technology: He said CBP won’t even consider buying technology unless it has been proven to work in the field.
But Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., sees the push for border security as political. “Without it, you don’t have a path to citizenship or any real compromise” in the immigration bill, he said.
“But if we’re going to put more resources on the border, we should modernize the ports of entry, to expedite trade and travel,” Grijalva said. More drones, towers and sensors “may have symbolic value. But it’s fighting a perception, rather than a reality.”
The flaws, the gaps and the challenges in analyzing the data have left CBP, of which the Border Patrol is a part, unable to answer such seemingly basic questions as how well all of this technology works and how many of the people and how much of the drugs coming across the border make it through.
Many border-security analysts see that lack of answers as problematic, given current plans in Congress.
The immigration-reform bill being debated in the Senate would boost border-security spending by as much as $6.5 billion over the next five years. That would roughly quadruple the more than $2 billion in Customs and Border Protection’s existing budget plans for more technology and to fix what’s in place.
In a nutshell, the bill would require the Border Patrol to build more fencing, more stations and more remote “forward-operating bases” near the border; to increase surveillance to cover the entire border 24 hours a day, seven days a week; to deploy more planes, helicopters and drones; to increase horse patrols; and to improve radio equipment and communication with other federal, state and local law enforcement.