U.S. Expanding Technologies to Monitor Border, Despite Ineffectiveness

Drones and other border-surveillance technologies used to detect migrants have repeatedly been found ineffective in United States government audits, but Customs and Border Protection, with congressional support, is working to expand the use of those technologies.

Over the past 18 years, two programs that used surveillance towers and ground sensors have been scrapped. Last year, another program, the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan, was criticized by the Government Accountability Office.

And in December, the Department of Homeland Security found that Border Patrol’s drone program was ineffective and recommended that no more drones be purchased until a review was completed.

But new surveillance towers are being built, and Congress is considering a measure to mandate more drone surveillance flights along the Southwest border.

The issue of border security in Arizona has a long and fraught history. Border Patrol spent $3.6 billion last year and intercepted about 479,000 undocumented migrants along the southwest border, according to Homeland Security. Border Patrol said it cannot estimate how many undocumented migrants are not caught.

In cactus-studded Arizona, Border Patrol uses a number of technologies, old and new, for monitoring. Horses and tracking dogs have been joined by drones and surveillance towers over the past two decades. These technologies pair with vibration sensors and trucks with mounted sensors, which have been in use since the Vietnam era.

But given their expense, these surveillance programs have been criticized as ineffective. In fact, some yield too much unnecessary information — animals and certain weather conditions set off false alarms, according to a Homeland Security Inspector General’s audit.

In that audit, which examined the drone program over eight years, Border Patrol’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, said that Border Patrol should abandon expansion plans and put future funds to better use.

In place of a proposed $443 million program expansion, the audit urged further study of the drones’ cost effectiveness versus alternatives like additional manned aircraft and more officers patrolling on the ground.

Yet Congress is considering the Secure Our Borders First bill (H.R. 399), which would mandate more flight time for Border Patrol’s drones. Representative Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican who is a co-sponsor of the bill, said that the drone program could work but that the department needed to “adjust their strategy as opposed to just throwing more hours at the current way they’re doing business.”

A combination of technology and other resources such as foot patrols, vehicle patrols and manned aircraft would lead to a better outcome, Rep. McSally said in an interview on Monday.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” she said. “It depends on what the terrain is like.”

Border Patrol officials echoed Rep. McSally’s assessment of surveillance practices. “They all have their uses, and so to compare them wouldn’t be fair regardless,” said a spokesman for the Tucson Sector Border Patrol, Mark Landess.

The drone program was begun in 2005 with the intent of cutting border-security costs in the long term. Border Patrol sent camera-equipped drones to check out vibration sensors ahead of agents on the ground, but the recent audit found the results unimpressive.

The audit also said drones accounted for less than 2 percent of apprehensions in 2013 in the Tucson sector.

Responding to the Homeland Security audit, a spokesman for Border Protection, Carlos Lazo, said on Monday that the apprehension data was flawed because drones receive credit for apprehensions only if they remain at the scene, and most are constantly soaring and scouting.

Mr. Lazo said that Border Protection had no plans to expand the program beyond replacing a drone lost last year when it crashed in the ocean near San Diego, Calif., after a malfunction. In April 2006, another was lost when it crashed into a hillside near Nogales, Ariz.

From 2005 to 2013, Border Protection spent $360 million for the purchase, support and maintenance of the drones, the Inspector General report said.

The other key technology used along the border involves surveillance towers. Since 1998, two large-scale surveillance programs costing more than $1 billion have been canceled. The successor to those programs, the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan, started in 2011, adds more surveillance towers, remote video surveillance and mobile surveillance.

A 2005 Inspector General report described the 1998 Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System as hindered by significant delays and cost overruns. The Secure Border Initiative, which took its place, was intended to cover the entire Southwest border with surveillance towers. It was canceled after “repeated technical problems, cost overruns and schedule delays,” according to a 2011 statement from the Department of Homeland Security.

And recently, the Government Accountability Office criticized the latest program for failing to prove whether new surveillance technologies helped in apprehensions or drug seizures.

But last year, Elbit Systems of America, a subsidiary of an Israeli-based defense company, was awarded a $145 million contract for surveillance towers.

Joshua Garcia, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation who lives in Tucson, said that over the past 10 years he has noticed the increased surveillance near the Coronado Forest, where generations of his family have gone to pick acorns.

Mobile surveillance towers operate inside the nation, and Border Patrol plans to build permanent towers there.

“Honestly, it feels like kind of like a violation of privacy,” said Garcia, who said he is often stopped near the forest by Border Patrol. “If you’re camping out, it always feels like you’re being watched.”