Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Border Fence Blocks Wildlife Movement, UA Study Finds

UA News
June 30, 2010
by Alan Fischer

A 4.88-meter-tall metal wall built along parts of the Arizona/Mexico border to try to keep out people is doing a good job of preventing the movement of some species of wildlife, University of Arizona researchers have found.

Some animals that live near the border dwell in fragmented habitats that are separated by vast spreads of unsuitable land, said Aaron Flesch, senior research specialist with the UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment.

"When you have habitat that is fragmented on the landscape, movement is really important. Animals need to move among these small patches of available habitat in order to persist in these environments," said Flesch, lead author of "Potential Effects of the United States-Mexico Border Fence on Wildlife," a paper that appeared in Conservation Biology.

"You might have suitable patches of habitat where the animals can survive and reproduce, separated by large areas of no habitat that might be difficult to traverse," he said.

Flesch and his co-authors tracked the movements and behaviors of ferruginous pygmy owls and desert bighorn sheep to see what impact the man-made border barrier, as well as areas cleared for roads and agricultural development, potentially would have on their movements among suitable habitats.

"For sheep it is very simple: a quadruped is not going to climb a fence. And four meters is a pretty good jump. Bighorn sheep, deer, mountain lions, bear, they are going to be visibly excluded from crossing a solid fence," he said.

"Most people think a bird is going to fly up and over a wall because they have wings. Pygmy owls are limited to fairly dense stands of vegetation. They often times avoid large vegetation gaps, and they tend to stick to and stay in dense cover and not cross big swaths of open country."

Tiny radio transmitters were attached to juvenile birds right after they fledged, and researchers tracked their movements. The owls moved up to six kilometers per night, he said.

"Pygmy owls tend to fly really low. They are not great flyers: they are strong flyers, but they tend to fly low to avoid predation." Of the flights tracked, only 23 percent got up to four meters or higher, he said, with some just inches off the ground. "They tend to avoid large vegetation openings. And when they encounter large vegetation openings grater than 200 meters, they tend to turn around."

While the border fence is not posing the danger of an immediate risk of extinction for wildlife species, it could mean the end of some important cross-border movements, he said.

"Certainly the pygmy owl and the desert bighorn sheep are not going to go extinct because of the border wall. I don't think there is any question about that," he said. "But what happens is if habitat is fragmented north of the border and there is not a lot of it to begin with, and the populations are small? If populations wink out locally (go locally extinct) in some of those patches, the overall number of animals might not be enough to foster persistence into the long term without some additional immigrating into that population from Mexico."

"The issue is more a local one – or a bi-national one. We need to work together to maintain populations across the international border at a certain level. The border is just a political boundary; animals don't recognize it."

Researchers can help policymakers find the best way to balance border security with the needs of wildlife species.

"There are concerns about immigration and border security, and my take is that those issues are here to stay. And so what needs to happen is people from academia, people from civil society, need to start working better with the Department of Homeland Security so that future actions for border security and infrastructure are done as thoughtfully as possible," he said. "It would be nice to have cooperation with concerned interests in Mexico about how to continue monitoring border security and adapting or building new infrastructure so that is has the least impact possible."

High-technology solutions could play a role in resolving the ongoing problem.

"We need to think of ways we can maintain those values, maintain wildlife, while at the same time enforcing immigration laws," he said. "We wanted to point out a few things like motion sensors, vehicle barriers, radar, things that people could use to figure out where illegal activity is happening or not happening, and potentially even monitor wildlife. That was our goal."

Matt Clark, a study co-author and conservation scientist working on border issues with the Defenders of Wildlife, noted this type of research should be better funded and expanded to include other species and border security impacts.

"There is an urgent need for governmental agencies to partner with universities and non-governmental entities to conduct scientific research to quantify the direct and indirect impacts of the border wall, patrol roads and human disturbance on wildlife," he said. "Only with objective information can these impacts be pinpointed and properly mitigated for. There are solutions whereby the goals of border security and wildlife conservation can be aligned."

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Costly efforts to secure border not paying off

Brownsville Herald
June 19, 2010
by Emma Perez Trevino

From the construction of the border fence to the deployment of unmanned aerial drones, federal initiatives have cost billions of dollars to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and have been mired in challenges and setbacks, public records show.

Audits by U.S. Congress’ investigative arm, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), also reflect that numerous initiatives have been stymied and plagued by mismanagement, lack of coordination and no oversight.

And in the case of aerial drones, the rush to deploy new units to secure the border could compromise safety and more.

In November 2005, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security implemented its most expensive and challenging initiatives under U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Secure Border Initiative (SBI).

The components of SBI included the construction of about $2.6 billion worth of fencing and a $1.6 billion virtual fence.

“It has been an utter failure,” Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos, a Republican, said of SBI, which began under Republican President George W. Bush and has continued under Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration.

GAO reported that as of April, CBP had completed 646 of the 652 miles of fencing and that it plans to have the remaining six miles completed by December. CBP also plans to construct 14 more miles of fencing in the Rio Grande Valley Sector by September.

“CBP reported that tactical infrastructure (fencing), coupled with additional trained agents had increased the miles of the southwest border under control, but despite a $2.6 billion investment, it cannot account separately for the impact of tactical infrastructure,” GAO found.

“I don’t believe that it is doing what they thought, what I thought it was going to do,” Cascos said. The fence is still being constructed in the county, and Cascos said that it has numerous gaps that are being lit by floodlights. “The initiative is not working, not in our part of the country; not based on what I see.”

Meanwhile, the $1.6 billion virtual fence, initiated in 2006 and known as SBInet, covers 53 miles in the Yuma and Tucson sectors. But GAO reported that as of April, Border Patrol agents continued to rely on existing technology rather than SBInet.

“According to my calculations, (the cost of the virtual fence) equals nearly $20 million per mile,” U. S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Mississippi, chairman of the U. S. House

of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement issued June 17, when a hearing was held on the initiative in Washington, D.C.

The plan was to have SBInet in place throughout the 1,989-mile U.S.-Mexico border by 2009.

The virtual fence is composed of a network of sensors, cameras, towers and radars that are supposed to detect and track movement on the border, and transmit the data to video terminals at command centers and agents’ vehicles to assist in identifying illegal activity.

GAO found that sensors can’t differentiate between vehicles, humans and animals — although the ability had been a requirement of the system. The radar also couldn’t differentiate between humans and vehicles.

But those in charge of the project decided to waive these and other significant requirements. “The system is now only required to achieve a 49 percent probability of identifying items of interest that cross the border,” GAO found.

“As even my two daughters know, 49 percent is not even close to a passing grade,” U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Border, Maritime,and Global Counterterrorism, said June 17 in a written statement.

“I think the big issue is the way border security has been handled by the past and present administration,” Cascos said. “There is divisiveness and partisanship and a lot of animosity. I believe that it is affecting some of the decision making process. They all work for the same people — the taxpayer — but yet they are also so protective of their own department that they don’t speak to each other, costing time and money.”

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in March froze funding for SBInet and reallocated $50 million to other available technologies, such as mobile radios, according to GAO.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also isn’t satisfied with SBInet, but, “while the implementation of SBInet has been unacceptable, the last thing we need to do is cut border security funding,” Cornyn told The Brownsville Herald in a written statement Friday.

Cornyn said that Obama’s budget request for fiscal year 2011 would cut SBI by more than 25 percent and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program by more than 12 percent.

“The White House even wanted to cut the Border Patrol by 181 agents — before Congress made clear that wasn’t going to fly,” Cornyn said.

Cornyn said that he introduced legislation that would have reallocated $2 billionin unspent stimulus funds toward much needed personnel, equipment and resources to southwest border communities.

“Unfortunately, it was defeated because Democrats and the president continue to underestimate the gravity of the situation and pay lip service to our citizens who are demanding that their government act,” Cornyn said.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, did not return a request for comment.

U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, said that, “a border wall running through our South Texas land is not the answer to our nation’s security,” adding that alternatives and new tools must first be assessed for their viability and efficiency.

The Merida Initiative is a three-year plan initiated in 2007 for $1.4 billion in U.S. assistance to Mexico and Central America to fight criminal organizations and disrupt drug and weapons trafficking, illicit financial activities, currency smuggling and human trafficking, the Congressional Research Service noted in a report to Congress in May 2009.

At a May congressional hearing, Thompson said that records showed Mexico has received only $161 million since the plan was implemented.

GAO noted in December 2009 that factors affecting the timing of the Merida funding process included statutory condition of the funds, challenges in fulfilling administrative procedures, and the need to enhance the ability in the U.S., Mexico,and Central America to implement the assistance.

The spokesman for U.S. Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, D-Texas, said in a statement Friday that Congress and the administration are working with counterparts in Mexico to develop the next phase of the initiative.

According to information from Cornyn’s office, major Mexican drug cartels have 100,000 members, rivaling the size of Mexico’s military.

Cornyn’s office also noted that:

22,700 lives were lost since Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon launched the offensive against drug cartels in December 2006.

9,635 people were killed in Mexican gang or cartel-related violence in 2009, more than triple 2007.

4,324 people were murdered in Cuidad Juarez since 2006.

3,365 lives were lost in the first three months of 2010 as a result of drug-related violence in Mexico.

522 Mexican military and law enforcement officials were killed in 2008.

$25 billion in estimated annual sales of Mexican drugs to the U.S.

“By many accounts, Mexico now ranks as more violent than Iraq or Afghanistan,” Shannon O’Neil, with the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a statement May 27 before congressional committee and subcommittee hearing in Washington D.C. on the future of the Merida Initiative.

O’Neil elaborated that the initiative does not take into account that the U.S. must do its part.

“The Merida Initiative overlooks three U.S.-based factors that perpetuate the drug trade and drug violence: guns, money, and demand,” O’Neil said, noting that all serious studies show that the vast majority of the guns used by the drug trafficking organizations come from the U.S. “As the United States asks Mexico to uphold its laws at great monetary and human cost, it should enforce its own laws.”

Hinojosa said that the Merida Initiative is a crucial strategy that unites the U.S. and Mexico in a commitment to secure the border.

“Both countries are committed to stopping the violence, cracking down on the flow of drugs and weapons that cross our border every day,” he said in a statement to the Herald on Friday. “By helping Mexico in its fight against crime, we are also helping the United States.”

A GAO review found in June 2009 significant challenges to the country’s efforts to combat firearm sales in the U. S. and the flow of weapons into Mexico, but the agency noted that evidence indicates that a large proportion of the firearms fueling Mexican drug violence originate in the U.S.

GAO said that according to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) officials, U.S. efforts are hampered by laws relating to restrictions on collecting and reporting information on purchases, a lack of required background checks for private firearms sales, and limitations on reporting requirements for multiple sales.

GAO also documented another problem: ATF and DHS’” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), do not consistently coordinate efforts because the agencies partly lack clear roles and responsibilities, resulting sometimes in duplicate initiatives and confusion during operations.

GAO said that law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Department of State have provided some assistance to Mexican counterparts in combating arms trafficking, but that it has been limited and has not targeted arms trafficking needs.

The Federal Aviation Administration is being bombarded.

State and federal elected officials and private enterprise have been pressuring FAA to issue waivers and exemptions, allowing for unmanned aircraft, also referred to as drones, on the National Airspace System throughout the country and Texas where they would operate together with commercial and private aircraft.

FAA recently approved DHS’s request to allow CBP to operate a drone in West Texas for border security, but a problem occurred in the first flight June 1 into Texas. Although not all details are known, it was serious enough to bring a temporary halt to CBP’s operations to provide personnel with further training.

A request to FAA to allow a drone along the border from West Texas to Brownsville and to the Texas coast is pending.

Ortiz’s spokesman said that the congressman supports the use of unmanned aerial vehicles amid other security initiatives.

In a speech on Nov. 18, 2009 in Arizona, regarding the future of UASs in the national airspace, FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt noted that, “While the UAS is undoubtedly the way of the future, my concern must be on today, and right now, the era of the unmanned aircraft system in civilian airspace is just not here yet. Much as we’d all wish the case were different, the level of technical maturity isn’t where it needs to be for full operation in the National Airspace System.”

Noting that standards need to be developed, Babbitt said that everyone must move in the same direction before it happens. “Those safety standards must be the same for everyone, even if no one’s in the cockpit.”

In the event that FAA approves drone flights into Cameron County, Cascos’ hope is that personnel who operate the drones are well trained and that the aircraft be fully tested “and tested and tested” in a barren area.

“You don’t test it up and down the Rio Grande among urbanized areas. They are a lot larger than kites, and weigh more than kites,” the county judge said.

Brownsville Mayor Pat M. Ahumada Jr. said drones in Cameron County would be fine, “if we were at war with Mexico. But we are not at war. I’m very concerned,” the mayor said about the possible advent of drones in the community.

Ahumada said that the drones, the border fence and virtual fence are “very expensive initiatives with very poor returns.”

“We have gone to extremes. It has caused division in our country,” he said, suggesting that the billions of dollars should instead be spent on combating the demand for drugs in the U.S. and the exportation of firearms, while reinforcing the Border Patrol with more officers.

“Let (the officers) do their job,” he said.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Border Patrol Charged Millions for Habitat Damage, Republicans Say Enough 'Extortion'

FOX "news"
(riddled with inaccuracies, as per usual)
June 21, 2010
by Judson Berger

Republican lawmakers are calling on the Interior Department to stop charging what they describe as "extortion" money from the Border Patrol -- millions of under-the-radar dollars meant to cover environmental damage stemming from their everyday duties along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Department of Homeland Security, which houses the Border Patrol, last year signed a deal with Interior -- the administrator of America's parklands -- to cough up $50 million for environmental "mitigation" needed in the wake of the construction of a border fence. That was after DHS had already spent or committed millions more for expected environmental damage caused by the Border Patrol over the years.

Though both the departments of Homeland Security and Interior say the money goes toward preserving and restoring sensitive habitats, Republicans say the arrangement doesn't make sense.

The Border Patrol needs that money to address the weighty task of securing the border, they say, arguing that agents are actually helping conserve the environment by keeping out smugglers and immigration violators who have no regard for America's natural resources.

They note that the transactions are conducted with little congressional oversight, and the Border Patrol has privately described the routine negotiations as a "constant headache."

It was a pay-to-play type of scheme," a Republican aide on the House Natural Resources Committee said of the millions Homeland Security has spent to date.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the kicker in the multimillion-dollar tradeoff is that the money doesn't even guarantee the Border Patrol open access to the land. Agents still have to follow particular rules to drive into wilderness areas to pursue suspects or set up routine patrols.

"That conflict has got to be resolved," he said. "If the Border Patrol was allowed to have free access to patrol the borders at will ... it would have the same effect that they're doing in other areas."

Bishop in March called on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to stop "extorting" the money from Homeland Security. "Money appropriated for border security should only be spent on making our borders more secure, and not diverted to unrelated DOI spending projects," he said in a statement at the time. According to Bishop's office, Salazar has not responded.

Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said in a statement to that Salazar is trying to "meet the twin goals of protecting our national security and our natural resources" and has directed senior staff to work with Homeland Security to improve collaboration. She said "significant progress" has been made.

Environmentalists say the harm to the environment from border security efforts, particularly the massive border fence, is great. Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that has focused on the issue, argues that fence construction along the U.S.-Mexico border is cutting off animal migration routes, disturbing natural habitats and worsening flooding.

Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club fought the Bush administration several years ago over its decision to waive certain environmental restrictions to ease construction of the border fence.

According to a letter by Salazar to Bishop sent in December, aside from the $50 million agreement, since 2006, $811,000 in "mitigation funds" had been transferred from Homeland Security to Interior for conservation of the Sonoran pronghorn, an animal similar to an antelope.

That conflicts with a letter sent two months earlier from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to Bishop in which she claimed DHS had spent or committed $9.8 million between September 2007 and October 2009 -- money sent to both the Interior Department and Forest Service, which falls under the Department of Agriculture. That's in addition to millions more that Homeland Security said it spent itself on "surveys and mitigation efforts" for the benefit of threatened and endangered species.

Plus the Border Patrol has set aside $5 million to "offset" negative effects to the environment from the construction of sensor towers along the Arizona border, according to DHS estimates. Those towers are part of a broader border security initiative that was partially halted earlier this year pending further review.

According to an impact study released in December, mitigation money for the towers along a 30-mile stretch of U.S. border was to be spent on a dizzying series of environmental projects. They include:

-- $200,000 to study the extent of unauthorized vehicle routes in the habitat of Sonoran pronghorn, which are endangered.

-- $1.75 million to close and restore those vehicle routes.

-- $20,000 to move pronghorn back to the Valley of the Ajo if they don't migrate by themselves in three years.

-- $14,000 to do weekly aerial surveys of the pronghorn during the 2010 fawning season.

-- $35,000 for monitoring the maternity roosts of lesser long-nosed bats.

-- $140,000 to study "unknown roosts" for lesser long-nosed bats.

Matt Clark, southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, described those examples as "well-thought-out mitigation measures." He said the towers might not look harmful to the environment, but that the generators attached to them and the vehicle traffic necessary to maintain them make a dent.

If anything, he said Border Patrol should be putting up more money to pay for damage. He described the harm from the border fence as "insidious," separating species from their own kind as well as food and water supplies. Though not an ideal situation, he said the mitigation money can be used to purchase land elsewhere and preserve habitat for the affected species.

"I think mitigation dollars can be put to good use," he said.

But Napolitano wrote that the tower project, which continues, is "routinely challenged with satisfying an array of environmental requirements."

"Each selected tower location may conflict with various environmental regulations or constraints, which must be addressed and/or mitigated. In addition, the relevant environmental regulations may be subject to varied interpretations depending on what level of the agency or organization is involved, which frequently leads to addition time, effort and cost to resolve before a project can proceed," the letter reads.

With the Interior Department closing off or restricting American parkland to U.S. visitors out of concern for border-related violence, some have questioned why the Border Patrol does not have better access to those areas with less cost.

Bishop has authored a bill that would restrict Interior from doing anything to "impede border security" on public lands, though the bill would not do anything about the environmental fees charged to the Border Patrol.

Jill Strait, spokeswoman for ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee Rep. Doc Hastings, said it's in the Interior Department's best interest to ease those fees.

"This is taking valuable money away from Border Patrol that is supposed to be used to safeguard our nation," she said. "Border Patrol is helping to protect against environmental damage, so that should be considered appropriate mitigation in itself."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Fox's Most Blatant Falsehood Ever?

Media Matters for America
Press Release
June 17, 2010

Washington, DC - Today, after Fox News and the Fox Nation falsely suggested that President Obama was giving a "major strip" of land in Arizona "back to Mexico," Media Matters for America issued an open letter to Fox News Senior Vice President Michael Clemente asking that, as promised in the "quality control" memo Fox News management issued to staff, "immediate disciplinary action" be taken.

"Michael Clemente cannot simply ignore this on-air error like he has so many others," said Ari Rabin-Havt, Vice President for Research and Communications at Media Matters. "This was one of the most deliberately misleading reports I've ever seen on Fox News."

Added Rabin-Havt: "This is not a quality control problem. This is a journalistic ethics problem. And if Fox News doesn't correct this, it will prove that it has none."


Rabin-Havt has sent five previous letters about such "mistakes" but has yet to receive a response. He sent today's letter after Bonnie Swarbrick, the public information officer for the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, exclusively told Media Matters that Fox's claims were "totally false" and the notion that America had given the land back to Mexico is "ludicrous."

The letter reads:

Dear Mr. Clemente:

I am writing to you to demand that you correct a glaring error made both on Fox News and on Fox's website The Fox Nation.

The Fox Nation used the preposterous headline "Obama Gives Back Major Strip of AZ to Mexico" to trumpet a report about a closure of land in a national wildlife refuge in Arizona. During that America Live report, guest host Shannon Bream stated: "A massive stretch of Arizona now off limits to Americans. Critics say the administration is, in effect, giving a major strip of the Southwest back to Mexico."

But according to Bonnie Swarbrick, who is the public information officer for the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, the "massive stretch" of land is about five miles square, it's been closed since 2006, and it obviously hasn't been given back to Mexico.

Swarbrick told Media Matters that the area in the refuge bordering Mexico was "closed in 2006 during the construction of a vehicle barrier." Work on the vehicle barrier progressed into the construction of a 12-foot fence along the part of the refuge that borders Mexico, which is about seven miles long. The area has been kept closed "to allow the Border Patrol to do their work," she said. Swarbrick added that the small strip of land that is closed makes up "less than 0.03 percent" of the refuge and said that the rest of the reserve is still open to the public.

However, the on-screen map that Fox News used during the report suggested a far different scenario:

The map suggests that the red outline indicates the closed area, but only the area of the refuge along the U.S.-Mexico border is actually closed

As for the Fox Nation headline, Swarbrick called it "totally false" and said the notion that America had given the land back to Mexico is "ludicrous."

I'll remind you once again of the quality control memo your network issued in November. The memo assured that "mistakes by any member of the show team that end up on air may result in immediate disciplinary action against those who played significant roles in the 'mistake chain.' " I would assume that the memo would also apply to Fox Nation, a website that Fox News has promoted with advertisements telling viewers that "[i]t's time to say 'no' to biased media and 'yes' to fair play and free speech."

I have written you on five previous occasions about errors on your network, and I have yet to see any "immediate disciplinary action" take place. In this particular case, on-air and online corrections, at the very least, are necessary.


Ari Rabin-Havt

Vice President for Communications and Research

Media Matters for America

Friday, June 18, 2010

'Virtual fence' gets a flogging

Arizona Daily Star
June 18, 2010
by Brady McCombs

The Department of Homeland Security's much-maligned border "virtual fence" took another thrashing Thursday from the federal government's investigative arm, further putting the program's future in doubt.

A Government Accountability Office official questioned the cost-effectiveness of the SBInet program that has been allocated about $1 billion over the past five years and has yet to produce a working system. The program has yet to demonstrate whether the time and money spent is a "prudent use of limited resources," said Randolph Hite of the Government Accountability Office in testimony before a House subcommittee.

The GAO has written several in-depth reports about the program since it was launched in 2006 detailing the ongoing technological glitches and delays. It was clear the program was in trouble within months of its start, Hite said.

"It's hard to redirect an iceberg once it's started moving in one direction, and that's what we've been faced with," Hite said.

Arizona has been the proving ground for the systems. A test system that cost $20.7 million went up in 2007 southwest of Tucson, flanking Sasabe. In the past two years, two systems have been constructed along 53 miles of border in southwestern Arizona. Those systems are not yet working.

Homeland Security officials said they understand the frustrations and reiterated the program's future depends on an ongoing reassessment they are conducting.

The assessment will tackle two questions, said Mark Borkowski, executive director of the Secure Border Initiative Program. First, "Is the SBInet system viable?" They'll evaluate that by completing the two systems in Arizona and seeing how they work and how much they cost to develop and maintain, he said.

The second question is, "Even if it works, is it worth it?" Borkowski said. They are comparing SBInet technology to other border security technologies for the answer, he said.

In March, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano froze future funds beyond work on the two Arizona systems and reallocated $50 million from stimulus funds to buy commercially available, stand-alone technology.

Napolitano has "long been concerned by SBInet's continued and repeated cost overruns and missed deadlines, and believes they raise fundamental questions about SBInet's viability and availability to meet the need for technology along the border," said DHS spokesman Matt Chandler in an e-mailed statement.

"Not only do we have an obligation to secure our borders, we have a responsibility to do so in the most cost-effective way possible - which is why Secretary Napolitano has already taken action to address the GAO's recommendations," Chandler wrote.

Border Patrol agents have been using parts of the virtual fence system called "Tucson-1," along 23 miles flanking Sasabe, in limited capacity since February, according to testimony from DHS officials. Officials expect to turn the system over to the Border Patrol for testing in September.

The "Ajo-1" system along 30 miles near Ajo is partially constructed, and officials expect to conduct testing by the end of the calendar year, the testimony shows.

But the GAO said those dates should not be trusted.

"Milestones for the program have continued to be pushed out into the future," Hite said in the hearing. "As a result, we do not have any confidence that the most recent set of program milestones associated with accepting the system will be met."

The missed deadlines are just one of the many problems that have plagued the program, he said. The system's capability has continued to shrink, both geographically and in performance.

Systems that were once expected to cover three Border Patrol sectors, about 655 miles, have been scaled back to cover two sectors covering 387 miles. Performance measures have been relaxed to the point where now the system is deemed acceptable if it identifies 49 percent of items crossing the border, Hite said in testimony.

"As even my two daughters know, 49 percent is not even close to a passing grade," wrote subcommittee Chairman Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas.

DHS officials have not been able to reliably estimate the life-cycle cost of the two systems up in Arizona, called "Block 1," Hite said

"In effect DHS is saying it will have to invest more than $1 billion in SBInet before it will know if doing so is economically justified and cost-effective," he said.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has been questioning the money and time spent on the program for years.

"Four years and $1 billion later, we are still without the plan that was originally envisioned," the Mississippi Democrat said in a prepared statement. "To make matters worse, this was not our first opportunity to get this right."

Thompson was referring to previous high-tech border-security projects that have failed to meet expectations. Homeland Security and its precursors spent $429 million between 1998 and 2005 on border surveillance systems that were set off by the movement of animals, trains and wind, the department's office of inspector general reported in 2005.

"The third time, as they say, was supposed to be a charm," Thompson wrote. "Regrettably, the partnership between DHS and Boeing has produced more missed deadlines and excuses than results."

On StarNet: For information on those who have died attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexican border search the Border Deaths database at borderdeaths

Testimony online

To read testimony and reports from Thursday's hearing about Homeland Security's border virtual fence, go to: homeland. index.asp?ID=259

Thursday, June 17, 2010

At least $800M spent for 53-mile border fence

Associated Press
June 17, 2010
by Suzanne Gamboa

WASHINGTON — Taxpayers have shelled out at least $15.1 million per mile for 53 miles of "virtual fence" built to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, more than 12 times the original estimate.

The federal government set aside $833 million for the fence of cameras, sensors and other barriers in 2007, and the vast majority of that money, at least $800 million, has been spent on a sliver, in Arizona, of the nearly 2,000-mile southern border. About $20.9 million has been used on the northern border.

Rep. Chris Carney, D-Pa., chairman of a House Homeland Security subcommittee, said the money was supposed to buy virtual fence for 655 miles of border in Arizona, New Mexico and a slice of Texas, at a cost of about $1.2 million per mile.

"We are guardians of the taxpayers' money and someone said yes to this, we said yes to this and it's not what was originally sold," Carney said.

The totals come from the House Homeland Security Committee, which got them from the Homeland Security Department. Customs and Border Protection confirmed the figures.

The fence, developed as part of a border security plan under President George W. Bush, was supposed to monitor most of the southern border with Mexico by 2011. Now, the 53 miles in Arizona is expected to be done by the end of the year.

Additionally, the expected capabilities of the virtual fence have shrunk, said Randolph Hite, a Government Accountability Office official.

"It's hard to redirect an iceberg once it's started moving in one direction, and that's what we are facing," Hite said.

The Homeland Security Department has suspended the project while it decides what to do next. Several officials acknowledged some good has come from the project, but they questioned the cost for those capabilities.

Carney urged the department to "find other means to secure the border in a timely and effective manner."

Roger Krone, an executive with virtual fence contractor Boeing, disagreed with portrayals of the spending. He said only $155 million was spent for the deployment of technology to monitor 55 miles of the Arizona border, a rate of $2.8 million a mile.

Krone said of the $828 million spent on the fence, $484 million was for nonrecurring costs, on design, development, supplier and program management and software design and development.

Mark Borkowski, Customs and Border Protections executive director of the Secure Border Initiative, said it's unknown whether the technology will be used to secure other parts of the border.

"The question is, is that really the right technology ... or can we come up with something that's a little bit more rational, that is tailored to each area of the border," Borkowski said.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Check Your Facts, Border Coalition Tells Iowa Rep.

Texas Tribune blog
June 15, 2010
by Juan Aguilar

The Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected officials and business leaders, today asked a Republican congressman whose district is hundreds of miles from the border to keep his ignorance in check.

U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, released a statement claiming the death of 15-year-old Sergio Adrían Hernández Güereca, who was shot by a U.S. Border Patrol agent on June 7, could have been prevented had the contentious “border wall” been in place in El Paso. Güereca was part of a group that allegedly threw rocks at U.S. law enforcement across the concrete banks of the Rio Grande.

“When faced with a life threatening situation, this agent appears to have responded to lethal force with lethal force as authorized. But this incident could have been avoided if the Administration had lived up to its responsibility under the ‘Secure Fence Act’ to build fences on our border,” King said.

Not so fast, the TBC quipped back.

“While few expect elected officials in Washington to understand every nuance of border security, members of Congress, such as Mr. King, should research basic facts before issuing press releases revealing their lack of acquaintance with reality,” said TBC chairman Del Rio Mayor Efrain Valdez. “Beginning in the early 20th century, the U.S. government has financed the construction of border fences in El Paso. In 1925, a ‘hog tight, horse high, and boot-legger-proof’ barbed-wire fence was built in El Paso. Observation towers were added in 1937.”

The towers were subsequently removed, but the fence was reinforced in 1978 with what its manufacturer said was wire so sharp “anyone who tried to scale them might lose his fingers and toes.” Holes were cut into the fence within a week.

“In the past few years, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has spent hundreds of millions of dollars constructing new and ‘improved’ fencing between El Paso and Juarez, obviously with the same ineffective results that have been evident for 85 years. Mr. King, we understand Iowa’s interest in border security," Valdez said. "We merely suggest you become familiar with the facts next time, before shooting off your mouth.”

Monday, June 14, 2010

Border security trips up immigration debate

Los Angeles Times
June 15, 2010
by Ken Dilanian and Nicholas Riccardi

The Republican governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, calls her state "the gateway to America for drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and crime." She blames the federal government for failing to secure the border with Mexico.

Her Democratic predecessor, Janet Napolitano, now the country's Homeland Security secretary, counters that the Southwestern border "is as secure now as it has ever been."

The dispute over just how much border security is enough looms as the biggest impediment to any attempt by the Obama administration and Congress to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.

Republicans say they can't support an immigration bill until the border is under control. The Obama administration points out that crime in U.S. border cities is down, as are illegal border crossings.

There should be room for compromise: One side would get more resources for border enforcement, and the other would get a program allowing migrants to cross the border to work and a path to legalization for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants residing in the U.S.

But so far, Washington is not even close.

Last month, President Obama nodded toward such an arrangement by agreeing to dispatch 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and seek half a billion dollars in additional funds for border enforcement.

That came after 18 months in which the Obama administration has outdone its predecessor on border enforcement spending and on deportations of illegal immigrants, all in an effort to build support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

None of it, however, has been enough for Republicans in Congress, including those, such as Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, who previously supported immigration changes.

McCain, facing a primary challenge, said Obama's plan was insufficient, and he tried unsuccessfully to pass an amendment in the Senate calling for 6,000 troops and $2 billion in spending.

Napolitano, in an interview, expressed frustration about the Republicans' singular focus on border security.

"Their position has evolved to be, 'We don't even want to talk about immigration reform unless you secure — read: seal — the border,' " she said. "And the definition of what securing the border means keeps changing, and that then becomes a reason not to address the real underlying issue, which is immigration reform."

The raw statistics don't support the notion, as Brewer put it in April, that the U.S. side of the Mexico border is awash in "uncontrolled … horrendous violence."

Mexico has seen a wave of killings and violence, but crime on the U.S. side is lower than it has been in previous years. In fact, the four largest American cities with the lowest rates of violent crime are all in border states, according to a new FBI report: San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso and Austin, Texas.

Illegal immigration is also down significantly, partly because of the U.S. economic recession.

Still, recent high-profile incidents have fueled perceptions that the drug violence in Mexico is spilling over. They include the March killing of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz, shot on his property in what authorities suspect was an encounter with a drug smuggling scout.

There also has been a dramatic rise in home invasions in Arizona in which suspected gang members target drug stash houses — "mostly trafficker against trafficker," said Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney for Arizona.

But it's unclear whether border enforcement can have much effect on those trends. Experience has shown that fences, technology and patrols have slowed illegal crossings in some areas only to steer traffic to other, more remote stretches.

The projected cost of border fencing is about $5 million a mile. That would be a price tag of nearly $9 billion for the 1,700 miles of unfenced border.

With huge budget deficits looming, there is little appetite for such spending. But most political observers believe that for an immigration bill to stand any chance in Congress, the Obama administration is going to have to convince more Americans that violence and illegal immigration have been mostly quelled.

"It is impossible for me and any other serious Democrat to get this body to move forward until we prove to the American people we can secure our borders," Graham told Napolitano when she testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April. "But once we get there, comprehensive reform should come up, will come up.",0,5865058.story

Thursday, June 3, 2010

US-Mexico border isn't so dangerous

Associated Press
June 3, 2010
by Martha Mendoza

It's one of the safest parts of America, and it's getting safer.

It's the U.S.-Mexico border, and even as politicians say more federal troops are needed to fight rising violence, government data obtained by The Associated Press show it actually isn't so dangerous after all.

The top four big cities in America with the lowest rates of violent crime are all in border states: San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso and Austin, according to a new FBI report. And an in-house Customs and Border Protection report shows that Border Patrol agents face far less danger than street cops in most U.S. cities.

The Customs and Border Protection study, obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request, shows 3 percent of Border Patrol agents and officers were assaulted last year, mostly when assailants threw rocks at them. That compares with 11 percent of police officers and sheriff's deputies assaulted during the same period, usually with guns or knives.

In addition, violent attacks against agents declined in 2009 along most of the border for the first time in seven years. So far this year assaults are slightly up, but data is incomplete.

"The border is safer now than it's ever been," said U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Lloyd Easterling.

He said one factor is that with fewer jobs available amid the U.S. recession, illegal immigration has dropped. And responding to security concerns after 9-11, the Border Patrol has doubled the number of agents in the region since 2004.

Nonetheless, border lawmakers and governors say their region is under siege and needs more troops.

"Violence in the vicinity of the U.S.-Mexico border continues to increase at an alarming rate. We believe that this violence represents a serious threat to the national security of the United States as well as a serious threat to U.S. citizens that live along the 1,969-mile long border," a dozen bipartisan members of Congress from border states wrote President Obama.

In Arizona, a stringent new immigration law takes effect next month, requiring police to question suspects' immigration status if officers believe they're in the country illegally. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said in a televised interview last weekend: "We are out here on the battlefield getting the impact of all this illegal immigration, and all the crime that comes with it."

In response to the concerns from the border states, Obama pledged to send 1,200 National Guard troops to help and spend an extra $500 million on border security.

His one-time rival for the presidency, Arizona Sen. John McCain, said he should send at least 6,000 troops, which are needed because he said Arizona leads the nation in marijuana seizures, suffered 368 kidnappings in 2008 and has the highest property crime rates in the U.S.

But FBI crime reports for 2009 says violent crime in Arizona declined. And violent crimes in southwest border counties are among the lowest in the nation per capita — they've dropped by more than 30 percent in the last two decades. Of America's 25 largest cities, San Diego — with one out of four residents an immigrant — has the lowest number of violent crimes per capita.

Opponents of increased border security are frustrated by descriptions of a wave of violence when the statistics show the region to be relatively safe.

"Politicians are hyping up this incredible fear across the country about the border, but these numbers show these are lies being perpetrated on the American public," said immigrant advocate Isabel Garcia at Tucson-based Derechos Humanos. "The warnings about violence are just an excuse to crack down on migrants who want to work and be with their families."

Even residents of the border region who want more security are surprised by the talk of violence.

"I have to say, a lot of this is way overblown," said Gary Brasher of Tuboc, Arizona, who is president of the Coalition for a Safe and Secure Border.

So why send troops to the region?

"That's really something to ask the White House," Easterling said.

White House spokesman Mike Hammer said "there are other rationales for why those border deployments are occurring" but declined to name any of them. "I would really put this to the Department of Homeland Security," he said.

Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler would not answer the question on the record during a telephone interview with the AP. He later sent a written statement that said more help is needed to build upon "the unprecedented resources the Administration has dedicated over the past 16 months and will serve to expand long-term the successes that have been realized to date."

Governors along the border say improved crime rates don't counter their concerns about risk.

"The federal government currently does not know who is entering our country and when, which obviously creates tremendous security concerns," said Brewer's spokesman Paul Senseman.

And in Texas, "we respond to threats based on risk, not occurrence," said Gov. Rick Perry's spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger. Thus Perry has activated a secret state border protection emergency plan.

"With the safety of Texans on the line, we can't afford to wait," he said.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who ordered the National Guard to patrol the border in his state six weeks ago, is concerned about "the potential for drug cartel violence spilling over the border," spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spokesman Francisco Castillo said that while "we've seen some success," troops are needed "to provide more security along our borders."

Concerns about danger come, in part, from Mexico, where raging cartel violence has taken 23,000 lives in three years, often within view of the U.S. border. There's frequent talk of the potential for that violence to spread across the border, although so far it hasn't happened to any significant degree.

Several high-profile and frightening incidents have added to the fears: Authorities suspect an illegal immigrant working for drug smugglers killed Arizona rancher Robert Krentz in March, and last year Border Patrol agent Robert Rosas, 30, was murdered while on patrol near San Diego.

"Agents now have to question if they will be ambushed," U.S. District Judge M. James Lorenz said as he sentenced a 17-year-old Mexican to 40 years for killing Rosas.

In fact, agents in the San Diego region are less likely to be attacked these days.

"Agent Rosas' death changed the way we do business. Agents are on high alert, we have to be ready. But if you just look at the numbers, assaults here are down 27 percent," said Border Patrol spokesman Jerry Conley, who worked with Rosas. He said that since Rosas' death, officers don't venture into potentially dangerous situations without backup. Solo patrols are rare, and they emphasize safety precautions.

There are exceptions to the trend: Assaults on agents in the Laredo, Texas, region increased from 44 in 2008 to 118 in 2009, and they increased in the neighboring Rio Grande Valley as well. Agents also fired their guns on 49 separate occasions in 2009, a 50 percent increase from 2008.

Customs spokesman Easterling said that while fewer people are trying to sneak across the border, those who do are more likely "engaged in activity other than illegal entry, such as drug smuggling, and are more likely to use violence as a means to help them escape apprehension."

But the bigger picture is one of increased safety. In fiscal year 2009, there were 1,073 violent attacks — mostly thrown rocks, bottles and sticks but also 48 incidents in which a gun was fired — against the 20,119 Border Patrol agents, down from 1,097 violent incidents against 17,819 agents in 2008.

In addition to those agents, another 22,000 officers work at the nation's border crossings and airports, checking people as they enter and exit the country.

It's one of the safest jobs in law enforcement: Last year 17 of them were assaulted, a 74 percent decrease from 2008.

Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it's time for lawmakers to reconsider what they'd like to see happening in the region.

"Border security has become the most overused, and least understood, concept in the struggle over what to do about our broken immigration system," he said. "While an election year may not be the best time, the United States finally needs an honest debate over what it means to secure the country's borders."