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 651miles 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 hu­man­rights 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 air- craft 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 buy- ing 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.”


To mon­i­tor the border­lands, Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion de­ploys such equip­ment as drones, radar blimps and sur­veil­lance air­craft.

Bor­der Patrol Agent Mar­cos Soto mon­i­tors a re­mote lo­ca­tion at the bor­der us­ing high-tech se­cu­rity cam­eras and binoc­u­lars.


Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion work­ers (top) do checks for a Preda­tor flight be­fore it takes off from Fort Huachuca to mon­i­tor the bor­der. Air op­er­a­tions di­rec­tor David Gasho (above) op­er­ates the drone.

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