Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sun, frost, thirst and bullets: A deadly border could become even more dangerous under Senate plan

NBC News June 26, 2013 by Bill Briggs The southwestern U.S. border has become an increasingly lethal snare: Brutal heat, desert freezes, harsh currents, poisonous snakes and sporadic gunfire are killing a rising number of undocumented migrants who are picking progressively treacherous routes to elude extra federal patrols. And the "border surge" — a Senate proposal to double U.S. agents on the Mexican boundary and extend 700 miles of fencing — would squeeze even more incoming migrants onto perilous and scorching overland paths, likely boosting the death toll of crossers from the 477 who perished attempting to enter America during 2012, experts say. “People are going into more dangerous areas. It’s probably very difficult to carry water the farther out you’re going,” said Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, an Arlington, Va.-based group that researches immigration issues. He authored a March study that showed the death rate among people trying to illegally traverse the Mexican border soared by 27 percent last year while overall migration from Mexico continued to decline. “These aren’t camping trips. People aren’t preparing. Or, they may be taken in by smugglers … and that’s not the same as a family going together where they really care about what happens to one another,” Anderson said. Harsh weather and desolate terrain combine to cause the most common form of death on the border: a nasty blend of dehydration plus either overheated or over-chilled bodies, according to a University of Arizona study published this month that examined data from the Pima County (Arizona) Medical Examiner's Office. Among the 171 undocumented migrants who died last year while scaling the mountain-and-canyon-dotted border southwest of Tucson, 46 percent expired due to “exposure” to the elements, the Arizona report determined. About eight in 10 were from Mexico. “There’s nobody out there, nowhere to go for help. So a lot of times we’ll be out there, driving a dirt road or walking a remote trail, and encounter people who are lost, sick or injured — in pretty in bad shape — and who were praying someone would come by,” said Greg Boyce, spokesman for No More Deaths, a volunteer-aid group based in Arizona. Their volunteers include nurses, doctors and emergency medical technicians. During their search excursions near Tucson, group members sometimes summon medical helicopters and ambulances to rush the sickest undocumented migrants to local hospitals. They occasionally work in tandem with some of the 900-plus U.S. Customs and Border agents who are trained in trauma treatment, Boyce said. (Last year, Border Patrol officers made 1,333 rescues at or near the southwest boundary, according to federal figures). Boyce's group also leaves containers of water throughout that vast area — thousands of gallons to date. "The really tough cases involve somebody who is not in an acute emergency, but their health is suffering. They've already been out there two or three days and they’ve got another two or three in the desert until they reach a safe place,” Boyce said. “We know if they keep walking, their health will deteriorate. “In some cases, we’ll encourage people to turn themselves into the Border Patrol — if they want, they can try another day; it’s better than dying out there,” he added. “But our advice sometimes goes unheeded. They’re desperate.” At the southern tip of Texas near Brownsville, most of the undocumented migrants who cross the border come from Central America, said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights group. They skirt through the Rio Grande Valley, which is perched along the northern bank of the Rio Grande river that divides the United States and Mexico. Deaths in that area also rose in 2012, Isacson said, and some causes included snakebites and drownings in the swift currents of irrigation canals that wind through that sector or in the waters of the Rio Grande. But hundreds of those crossers were found dead well inside Texas, north of Brownsville and in a town called McAllen, halfway toward the coastal city of Corpus Christi. “On that primary highway north (of the border), there’s a Border Patrol checkpoint so the smugglers drop everybody off the road to get around that. It's probably only about a 10- to 12-mile walk through this scrub-land but that’s where they’re dying," Isacson said. “Most of these migrants have been held in a safe house for several days, maybe even on the U.S. side of the border, but have been poorly fed and not given much water. “In that area, it’s flat and there’s lots of bushes and mesquite that obscure your view. So people get lost. They end up going in circles,” he added. Gunfire, kidnappings Bullets also fly on the border. According to Isacson's tracking: “There have been as many as 20 cross-border shooting incidents in the last few years.” U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials confirmed that during the past two years there have been eight such fatal incidents involving their agents or officers. One case involved friendly fire. In October 2012, Border Patrol Agent Nicholas Ivie, 30, was fatally shot after he and two fellow agents responded to something or someone triggering one of the thousands of ground sensors that dot parts of southeastern Arizona. An investigation found that when Ivie opened fire on two other agents, apparently mistaking them for smugglers, they returned fire and killed him. And in rare situations, abductions occur along the border. In May, armed gunmen kidnapped U.S. Marine Armando Torres III in Mexico — along with the Marine’s father and uncle — shortly after Torres exited south Texas to visit his father’s ranch in neighboring La Barranca, Tamaulipas. As of June 15, the FBI reported it was conducting an international probe. On June 4, Mexican soldiers rescued 165 people who had been kidnapped about three weeks earlier by a drug cartel and held in a small home along the U.S. line. Among the victims were 150 migrants from Central America who had planned to cross the border in the Rio Grande Valley. As Congress appears set to clamp down even harder on the U.S.-Mexico border with bolstered patrols and fencing, human-rights advocates like Isacson and Boyce contend that deaths among illegal migrants will spike as more of those people choose to head even deeper into the remote, desert scrub and higher into the mountains as they hike to enter America. Temperatures along those routes can reach 110 degrees. "If they’re going to double border patrol, they should at least quadruple or quintuple the portion of border patrol that is doing search and rescue," Isacson said. "That would save some lives." According to Customs and Border spokesman Bill Brooks, that agency already "has taken significant steps" to prevent the deaths of border-crossing migrants. "Most notably, (those steps include) the Border Safety Initiative (BSI), a humanitarian, bi-national strategy, designed to reduce migrant deaths and make the border safer for agents, border residents, and migrants, by training agents as first responders, EMTs and paramedics," Brooks said in an email. But if twice as many Border Patrol agents soon begin roaming the boundary — should the Senate bill becomes law — will the risk of migrant shootings by agents also rise? "If Border Patrol's manpower doubles, and it doesn't improve its current training and procedures for use of force and for dealing with abuses, then it's very likely that we'll see more episodes of violence and shootings," Isacson said. "There's really not enough for a doubled force to do — something that's been completely ignored in this debate," Isacson added. "The number of border-crossers apprehended per Border Patrol agent is now 19 per year. In 2000, it was 10-times that, 192 apprehensions per agent. In 1993 it was 327 ... There will be far less to guard against if the force doubles." Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, however, that "common sense immigration reform legislation" must include measures that would tighten border security — along with crackdowns on employers that hire undocumented workers and a streamlining of the legal-immigration system. "The border security amendment agreed to by a bipartisan group of Senators is in line with that criteria," Napolitano said in a June 21 statement. "It will devote important additional resources to the robust border security system this Administration has put in place and strengthen what was already an unmatched piece of border security legislation.”

Sierra Club: More border walls is not the answer

Rio Grande Guardian June 22, 2013 by Steve Taylor HIDALGO, June 22 - The Sierra Club has denounced plans to build hundreds of miles of additional border walls, saying the only place left to add more barriers is through wildlife refuges and private property along the Rio Grande in Texas. In a statement, the group said America and its environment can’t afford another “Border Splurge.” So far, six hundred miles of walls have been built along the U.S.-Mexico border. “What we’ve learned,” the Sierra Club states, “is that that these barriers do not stop immigration – they only devastate wildlife and habitat while bisecting communities and costing taxpayers millions of dollars per mile.” Plans to build more border walls came via an amendment to the Senate immigration reform legislation authored by Republican U.S. Sens. John Hoeven of North Dakota and Bob Corker of Tennessee. The amendment, which has the backing of the so-called Gang of Eight U.S. senators, would require the construction of hundreds of miles of border walls, to be added to the existing 651 miles of fencing already built, in addition to a near doubling of the U.S Border Patrol by adding 20,000 agents. There would also be a lot more towers, cameras, sensors and drones. The additional border security could cost $48 billion over ten years. Dan Millis, of the Sierra Club Borderlands team, said the Sierra Club “strongly opposes this reckless and unrealistic proposal that would not only destroy habitat, cut off wildlife migration corridors and cause flooding, but also waste tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on technology we know has little impact on fixing our immigration system.” Millis pointed out that last year the U.S. government spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement - more than all other federal law enforcement combined. “Our borderlands are already overrun with excessive numbers of Border Patrol vehicles, agents, towers and buildings. We have more than 650 miles of border fence that only serve to bisect communities and devastate the borderlands environment. We already have a border splurge – we don’t need another one,” Millis said. Millis said the proposed doubling of the Border Patrol is precisely that, another border splurge. “While cutting basic services and environmental protections, they want to waste billions more building more fences. The truth is the only place left to build more fences is through wildlife refuges and private property along the Rio Grande in Texas, where Homeland Security estimates future wall construction projects to cost $9.4 million per mile. That means spending billions of dollars on hundreds of miles of fence that won’t do what they want it to do,” Millis said. “Our communities, our wildlife, and our borderlands can’t afford another border splurge, and neither can American taxpayers.” Another group that has come out strongly against the Corker-Hoeven amendment is CAMBIO, which stands for Campaign for an Accountable, Moral and Balanced Immigration Overhaul. Its members include the Border Network for Human Rights, the Southern Border Communities Coalition, the ACLU of New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights, and the Northern Borders Coalition. The group released the following joint statement in united opposition to the negotiated Senate deal: “This is a bad deal for U.S. taxpayers, but especially for those that live and work in the border region. While the flow of migration is at a historic low, excessive enforcement remains unchecked and unaccountable to communities in which Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection operates. This proposal to increase enforcement without checks and balances is an example of excessive and wasteful government spending and represents an unnecessary expansion of the federal government's authority. “We know the effects that these provisions will have on the daily lives of all border residents. Our communities have endured the painful reality of unchecked and unaccountable enforcement operations, which have led to decreased civil liberties and civil rights protections, interruption of commerce and trade, constant surveillance in our neighborhoods, excessive and deadly use of force by Border Patrol agents, and the outright militarization of border communities. The senators need to be reminded that border communities are still part of this nation and that there should be no further militarization of our neighborhoods. In fact, there has been an immediate and overwhelming response from mayors, local elected officials, law enforcement leaders and faith leaders along the border in opposition to the proposal. “As border communities, we stand united in our resounding rejection of the Hoeven-Corker deal and urge the Senate to include accountability and oversight mechanisms to the already massive presence of border agents in our communities. This includes mandating lapel cameras for border agents, providing subpoena power to the DHS Border Oversight Task Force, applying geographic limits on warrantless Border Patrol stops in the southern border, and directing any increase in personnel to ports of entry where they are needed to facilitate trade that is fueling our economies. “The Hoeven-Corker proposal to increase the number of Border Patrol, add additional fencing, and spend trillions in technology is expensive, extreme and wasteful, particularly at a time when we need to improve our schools, fix our roads, and grow our economy. It is an assault on our system of checks and balances and seriously threatens the quality of life of border residents. Overhauling the nation's immigration process is urgently necessary, but this should not be done without proper consultation with those communities who must live with the effects of poorly thought-out policy. We cannot not remain silent as politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to treat border communities as an endlessly expendable trade-off for immigration reform.” Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas was one of the elected officials to welcome members of the Border Network for Human Rights when they participated in a caravan for immigration reform in Laredo on Tuesday. This week, Salinas has been in Las Vegas for the Conference of Mayors’ summer meeting. Salinas offered a resolution in support of comprehensive immigration reform that was approved by both the Conference of Mayors' Immigration Reform Task Force and its Criminal and Social Justice Committee. This committee is chaired by Houston Mayor Annise D. Parker. “I am grateful to Mayor Parker for carrying the resolution through her committee and I am prepared to carry the resolution on the floor of the Conference on Monday,” Salinas said. “Immigration reform is needed now more than ever, and I am pleased that the Congress and the GAO have now documented the Immigration Reform is not only the right thing to do, it will provide this nation a needed economic stimulus.” Vice President Joe Biden spoke about immigration reform at the Conference of Mayors event. “The math is pretty simple, if you bring people out of the shadows and you give them a start they add to the tax base. They start investing in the communities where they live and they begin to lay down roots,” Biden said. Salinas was pleased with the remarks Biden made. “Vice President Biden referenced research that documented that the majority of small business that are started today are started by immigrants. But, more than the research, I was pleased that the Conference of Mayors debuted a documentary on the DREAMERs. You don't need research to see the desire in those young people's eyes,” Salinas said.

Border Security Rule Costs Bill Support

New York Times June 26, 2013 by Fernanda Santos PHOENIX — A push to assuage opposition to the bipartisan immigration bill before Congress by devoting more money and muscle to the task of securing the border with Mexico has yielded at least one unforeseen consequence: It weakened support for the bill among some pro-immigrant groups that had been its most reliable backers. Advocates have staged protests in several cities this week denouncing a plan endorsed by the Senate to inject $40 billion in enforcement measures over the next decade, including 18,000 more Border Patrol agents and 700 more miles of the hulking steel fence that demarcates the countries. Leaders of, the nation’s largest online Latino advocacy organization, took the step of opposing the broader immigration bill altogether, saying in a statement they could not “in good conscience” stand by it if it is also “guaranteed to increase death and destruction through increased militarization of the border.” Other advocates are considering the same path as they increasingly shift their criticism to the Democrats. In closed-door meetings, many have accused Democrats of giving up on a balanced compromise over immigration reform just to move the bill forward. “Is this the way they’re going to, quote-unquote, resolve immigration issues?” said Fernando Garcia, executive director for the Border Network for Human Rights, based in El Paso, Tex. The group is one of several that signed a letter to the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators who drafted the bill, denouncing the border-security proposal, an amendment by two Republican senators, Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota, that they said made no mention of the families it is bound to keep apart. “This amendment makes border communities a sacrificial lamb, in exchange for the road to citizenship,” said Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, based in San Diego. By focusing on border security, the Corker-Hoeven plan — brought to a vote quickly and under criticism by conservative legislators, who said they had not been given enough time to digest it — helped break the resistance of more than a dozen Republican senators to overhauling immigration laws. Fifteen of them joined Democrats to advance the measure by a vote of 67-27. Its provisions, the toughest in the history of border-enforcement buildup, got Mexico to break its silence on Tuesday, when Foreign Minister José Antonio Meade told reporters: “Fences do not unite us. They are not the solution to the migratory phenomenon and are not consistent with a secure and modern border.” The approach did draw praise from Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, who signed a law in 2010 that reignited the debate over illegal immigration in the United States. She stopped short of lending her support to the bill before Congress. “I have faith that House Republicans will improve the bill by making securing our border the top priority,” she said. At a meeting here on Wednesday, in the fellowship room of a church on the edge of downtown, leaders of 20 immigrant rights’ groups grappled with what to do next. One, Carlos Garcia, executive director of Puente, said: “There’s no outrage at what’s going on. We can’t just put our head down and accept this is the best we’re going to get.” Máxima Guerrero, of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, asked, “Where do we actually draw the line?” Reyna Montoya, Arizona organizer for United We Dream, said that no matters what happens, “We’re not willing to compromise on citizenship.” Petra Falcón, executive director of Promise Arizona, who worked for 15 years along the southern border, said the Corker-Hoeven amendment “caught a lot of people off guard” and called it “overkill” because of the amount of resources it devotes to security. But Ms. Falcón said “there are still good pieces left” in the broader immigration bill, like a path to citizenship for many of the immigrants who are in the country illegally. “The question we have to ask ourselves is, can we live with this as it is and continue our work to make other changes down the road?” she said. “I’d rather be at the table fighting than say we’re going to stop this now.”

Friday, June 7, 2013

As Wars End, a Rush to Grab Dollars Spent on the Border

New York Times June 6, 2013 by Eric Lipton TUCSON — The nation’s largest military contractors, facing federal budget cuts and the withdrawals from two wars, are turning their sights to the Mexican border in the hopes of collecting some of the billions of dollars expected to be spent on tighter security if immigration legislation becomes law. Half a dozen major military contractors, including Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, are preparing for an unusual desert showdown here this summer, demonstrating their military-grade radar and long-range camera systems in an effort to secure a Homeland Security Department contract worth as much as $1 billion. Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, is pitching to Homeland Security officials an automated tracking device — first built for the Pentagon to find roadside bombs in Afghanistan — that could be mounted on aerial drones to find illegal border crossers. And General Atomics, which manufactures the reconnaissance drones, wants to double the size of the fleet under a recently awarded contract worth up to $443 million. The military-style buildup at the border zone, which started in the Tucson area late in the Bush administration, would become all but mandatory under the bill pending before the Senate. It requires that within six months of enactment, Homeland Security submit a plan to achieve “effective control” and “persistent surveillance” of the entire 1,969-mile land border with Mexico, something never before accomplished. For military contractors, that could be a real boon. “There are only so many missile systems and Apache attack helicopters you can sell,” said Dennis L. Hoffman, an Arizona State University economics professor who has studied future potential markets for the defense industry. “This push toward border security fits very well with the need to create an ongoing stream of revenue.” Since 2005, the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled to 21,000, and the stretches protected by pedestrian or vehicle fencing have grown to 651 miles as of last year from 135. But there are still large swaths where people trying to enter the United States illegally have good odds of success, particularly in rural Texas. And with budget cutting in the past two years, money for surveillance equipment along the border has been pared back. “The main gap in our ability to provide a more secure border at this point is technology,” Mark S. Borkowski, the head of acquisitions for Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, told participants at a border security industry conference in March. Military contractors have not played a significant role in lobbying for the passage of the immigration legislation, which includes $4.5 billion to bolster border security over the next five years. But teams of lobbyists, including former Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato, a New York Republican, and Benjamin Abrams, a former top aide to Representative Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat and House minority whip, have already been pressing Homeland Security officials and lawmakers on behalf of their clients, efforts that have been backed up with millions of dollars of industry campaign contributions. Homeland Security would have to decide, in consultation with Congress, how to divide the money — on long-range cameras, radar systems, mobile surveillance equipment, aircraft or lower-tech solutions like more border agents or physical fences — decisions that would determine how various contractors might fare. “It has been a tough time for the industry: people have been laid off or furloughed,” said James P. Creaghan, a lobbyist who represents a small Texas company, Personal Defense, which is trying to sell more night-vision goggles to Homeland Security. “This could help out.” Northrop has won some important allies on Capitol Hill, including Senator Thomas R. Carper, Democrat of Delaware, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, who is urging the department to invest more in Northrop’s drone-mounted surveillance system, called Vader. General Atomics, which Mr. D’Amato represents, has so much support in Congress that it has pressed Homeland Security in recent years to buy more Predator drones than the department has the personnel to operate, so they often sit unused, according to an agency audit. The specific requirement in the legislation now before the Senate is that Homeland Security must install surveillance equipment or other measures that would allow it to apprehend or turn back 9 out of 10 people trying to illegally enter across all sectors of the southern land border. The department would be prohibited from moving ahead with the “pathway to citizenship” for immigrants already in the United States until this new security strategy is “substantially operational.” The bill is scheduled to be taken up for debate on the Senate floor next week, and certain Republicans have already drafted amendments that would make the requirement even more demanding, explicitly mandating that the 90 percent standard be achieved before the pathway to citizenship can proceed. The Tucson area, for years the busiest crossing point for illegal immigrants, has served as the testing ground for the federal government’s high-technology border effort, although even senior Homeland Security officials acknowledge it got off to a poor start. Boeing was selected back in 2006, when the last major push by Congress to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws was under way, to create a “virtual fence” that would use radar and video systems to identify and track incursions, information that would then be beamed to regional command centers and border agents in the field. But the ground radar system at first kept shutting down because of faulty circuit breakers, audits found, while the towers installed for the mounting of radar and advanced long-range cameras swayed too much in the desert winds. Even rainstorms snarled things, creating countless false alerts. “It should have been pretty simple,” Mr. Borkowski said in a recent speech of the troubled $850 million project. “We weren’t frankly smart enough.” Critics say the government often is too fixated on high-technology solutions. C. Stewart Verdery Jr., a former Homeland Security official who now runs a lobbying firm, said federal officials should instead focus their limited resources on making it harder for illegal immigrants to work in the United States, an approach that would serve as an effective deterrent. “Where are you going to get the biggest bang for the buck?” Mr. Verdery said. “Enforcement of the workplace is probably the best area to invest more dollars.” But the technological solutions still have many advocates in Arizona, where Border Patrol officials contend that the equipment Boeing installed, despite its flaws, has fundamentally changed the cat-and-mouse game that plays out every day. One recent afternoon, as the temperature in the Arizona desert hovered near 100 degrees, Border Patrol agents stationed inside a command center in Tucson were notified that a ground sensor had gone off. The command center, built under the Boeing contract, resembles the set from the Hollywood movie “Minority Report,” with Border Patrol agents sitting in front of banks of computer terminals and oversize screens that allow them to virtually fly over huge expanses of open desert 70 miles away. Using his computer, one agent pointed the long-range, heat-seeking camera at the location where the sensor had gone off. Within seconds, black-and-white images of a group of men and women walking rapidly through the desert heat appeared on his screen. “One, two, three, four, five,” the agent called out, counting until he reached 15 people in the group. He also carefully scanned the images to see if any of the people were carrying large sacks, a sign of a possible drug delivery, or had any rifles or other weapons. The Border Patrol radios lit up as he directed nearby agents on the ground to respond and called for backup from one of Customs and Border Protection’s helicopters based in Tucson. “What you see today is like night and day compared to what we had,” said Cmdr. Jeffrey Self of the Border Patrol, who oversees the Tucson region. The Boeing system, along with the surge in Border Patrol agents, has resulted in a major drop in attempted illegal crossings, he said, with apprehensions dropping 80 percent since their peak in 2000, considered a sign of a drop in overall traffic. But the system’s weaknesses are still apparent. The computer terminal crashed while the search was under way, cutting off one agent’s video feed. And on that recent afternoon, no air support was immediately available. The one helicopter nearby that was on duty was running low on fuel, so it did not arrive on the scene until 90 minutes later. Meanwhile, the Border Patrol agents at the Tucson command center lost the border crossers as they dropped into a ditch, taking them out of the line of sight of the camera and radar. Apparently seeing Border Patrol trucks and the helicopter, the group realized it had been spotted and retreated back south, an agency spokesman said. The 15 were marked down as “turn backs.” Homeland Security has been preparing for more than a year to expand this system, under a new contract that would rely on proven surveillance technology. That is why the military contractors vying for the job will be asked in coming weeks to demonstrate their gear. The department also wants to identify a mix of equipment — some on fixed towers, others on trucks for mobility — so that officials can tailor uses to the different needs along the border. Department officials said their choices would be driven by a determination of what the best available tools were for securing the border, not what the defense contractors or their lobbyists were pitching. Customs and Border Protection officials, said Michael J. Friel, a department spokesman in a statement, are “dedicated to continuing this progress towards a safer, stronger and more secure border.”

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Border technology remains flawed

Arizona Republic June 3, 2013 by Bob Ortega UCSON - 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 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 comprehensive 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. 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 4x4 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. Drone problems 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. More coordination 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.”