By No Labels
As the immigration debate heats up this month, the fate of the border wall will receive lots of attention. But perhaps equally important will be technology initiatives that could be employed to tighten border security.
Everything from blimps to drones to repurposed military hardware is already being used to police the U.S.-Mexico border, and using more of it might hold the key to a border security compromise.
What exactly are the technologies and other enhancements that can help border security? Here’s what you need to know.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection operates a fleet of eight massive blimps along the southern border, capable of surveillance from 10,000 feet in the air. The Tethered Aerostat Radar System consists of unmanned airships roughly 200 feet long and 60 feet around that are tethered to the ground and operated by a five-person crew. At a cost of about $8.9 million each, they can see aircraft as far as 200 miles away. In fiscal year 2016, they were responsible for about four in 10 radar detections on the border, according to the agency.
Authorities have long used large, unmanned drones for surveillance. Now, they are testing small units that can be launched in the field to increase surveillance in areas that are inaccessible or dangerous for border control agents. Some drones have a wingspan of 10 feet, weigh less than 15 pounds and can be carried in an SUV. Others are small enough to fit in a backpack. U.S. Customs and Border Protection began testing the drones last year and will continue this year before deciding on their utility.
Many different technologies are in use on the U.S.-Mexico border right now. There are more than 12,000 sensors along the border, and hundreds of license plate readers on roads. Helicopters use infrared cameras. X-ray scanners check cars and trucks for anomalies, such as hidden compartments, which can be used to store drugs, weapons and other contraband. Some of the technology was procured through a program that repurposes military hardware used in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One solution that is already in the works is to increase the number of agents patrolling the border. Last January, President Trump signed an order calling for 5,000 additional border patrol agents, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection increased hiring by 14 percent in fiscal year 2017, which ended in September. There are now more than 19,400 border patrol agents, and 85 percent are working in the southwestern border sectors.
This will likely be a major question in the immigration debate. Authorities are using both technology and physical barriers now (there is 650 miles of fence along the border). But the debate is likely to focus more on the politics of these solutions than their effectiveness on the ground.
In order for Congress to pass legislation that protects young, undocumented immigrants (the “Dreamers”) from deportation, enhanced border security will almost certainly have to be part of the package. Congressional Democrats have said they can support technology solutions, but not a physical wall. Trump has insisted that the wall be funded, and that means bricks and mortar. Whether a compromise can be struck remains to be seen.