Border Patrol Seeks to Add Digital Eyes to Its Ranks
By JULIA PRESTON MARCH 21, 2014
A portable surveillance tower was on display Tuesday at the Border Security Expo, a technology bazaar held in Phoenix that drew hundreds of merchants. Credit Samantha Sais for The New York Times
PHOENIX — Among the federal officials who gathered here this week for a conclave on border security, there was little talk of building a fence along the 2,000-mile Mexican border. Instead, the chatter was all about technology: about concentrating Border Patrol agents, equipped with late-model surveillance tools, in areas of frequent illegal traffic, while using aerial drones to monitor remote, lightly trafficked spots.
The chief of the Border Patrol, Michael J. Fisher, said the goal of the strategy, begun a year ago, was to “shrink the border,” allowing agents to focus on areas where criminal smugglers of migrants and drugs were most likely to travel.
The plan is to cover 900 miles, or 45 percent of the border, by 2016 with a “dense” array of agents and technology, and to monitor 1,092 miles, the other 55 percent, with “persistent surveillance” informed by drones, Mr. Fisher said.
The report from Mr. Fisher and other top Homeland Security officials was eagerly received by hundreds of merchants who brought their wares to the Border Security Expo, a technology bazaar in the convention center here filled with darting robots, winged drones, high-powered microwave radios and video cameras that can peer over fences and through walls, day or night.
A Border Patrol agent at the expo. Part of a strategy on patrolling the border involves using aerial drones to monitor remote, lightly trafficked spots. Credit Samantha Sais for The New York Times
House Republican leaders issued immigration principles in January saying that the United States had a “fundamental duty” to secure the border but was “failing in this mission.” Republicans have since said they were unlikely to take up immigration in the House this year. Last year, the Senate passed a comprehensive bill with a $40 billion increase for border spending.
Homeland Security officials said they were not waiting for new action from Congress, which has nearly doubled the size of the Border Patrol since 2006 to more than 18,500 agents.
“Some would suggest that you have to seal the border 100 percent, in which case we’re going to need thousands and thousands more Border Patrol agents and thousands and thousands more pieces of equipment,” Mr. Fisher said. “Even if our budgets could sustain it, which I suspect they cannot, we had to come up with an alternative plan this year.”
Mr. Fisher said he had asked field commanders to identify areas across the rugged mountains and variable riverbeds of the border that were “low risk” because terrain or other factors made them hostile for people crossing illegally. He said 115 areas were identified, and Predator drones began last March to monitor them systematically to confirm there was no human movement.
If drones detect changes on the ground in those areas, a reconnaissance team is sent within 24 hours to determine whether there was an incursion, Mr. Fisher said. So far, detailed aerial images have been made of 388 miles of so-called low-risk border so that changes there can be rapidly noticed.
In areas with higher traffic, agents patrol more frequently, backed up by surveillance towers, mobile spy systems, remote video cameras, hidden ground sensors and a host of other devices, some of them already proven in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such technology has been in use for several years near Tucson, until last year the busiest sector for illegal crossings. Now officials are gradually spreading it to other areas, particularly South Texas, where crossings are surging.
n 2013, the Border Patrol made about 330,000 apprehensions at the southwest border, a third year at a low number not seen since the early 1970s. But almost all crossers were smuggled by criminal organizations that are also moving drugs and other contraband, officials said. As the authorities made it harder to move on the ground, smugglers dug tunnels under the line and sent ultralight aircraft to fly over it.
Vendors in the vast display hall insisted they had answers. Qinetiq North America was offering a small robot that could scuttle into a makeshift tunnel to deactivate traps.
AAI Corporation, in Maryland, had a drone, about 14 feet long, mounted with daylight and infrared cameras, just the thing for the aerial mapping that Mr. Fisher mentioned, said Jon Borcik, a representative.
“It’s very covert,” Mr. Borcik said. “You really can’t see it in the air, and it’s a very quiet vehicle also.”
Competition was intense to provide cameras mounted on collapsible towers that agents could carry in their pickup trucks. John Moulton, from Tactical Micro, in Virginia, had built a tower that could rise to 35 feet with a camera that could see six miles and a laser spotter that could pinpoint a person at more than eight miles.
Homeland Security officials are still smarting from a disastrous border technology program started under President George W. Bush that cost more than $1.1 billion and produced very limited results. After three years of deliberations, last month the agency invested $23 million to purchase tall, fixed towers for cameras and other devices, the first such effort after the tower system failed in the earlier program.
At least one vendor, ITC Manufacturing of Phoenix, was actually trying to sell the Border Patrol a fence. But that fence was made of thin bars of high-carbon steel set less than an inch apart, said Wayne Lyall of ITC, resistant to the most powerful bolt cutter. It did not look at all like the high metal barriers that lawmakers in Washington often evoke when demanding more security at the border.
A version of this article appears in print on March 22, 2014, on page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: Border Patrol Seeks to Add Digital Eyes to Its Ranks