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Senate Passes Immigration Bill; Billions Slated for Drones, Choppers, Surveillance

Jun. 27, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT and PAUL McLEARY   |   Comments
The Senate passed an immigration reform and border security bill on Thursday.
The Senate passed an immigration reform and border security bill on Thursday. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection)
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After years of effort to reform immigration rules and come up with a workable solution for the millions of undocumented residents in the United States, the Senate passed a massive $46 billion immigration reform and border security bill by a 68-32 vote on Thursday.

The bill faces plenty of obstacles in the House however, where many Republicans oppose efforts to put the 11 million people living illegally in the US on a path to citizenship.

The Mexican government has also taken a hard line on the bill, which in part demands that the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) be able to maintain “operational control” of the southwest border with Mexico by building about 700 miles of fencing on the international line and flooding the region with more border agents, National Guard troops, drones, expensive ground sensors, and excess equipment donated by the Pentagon.

“We are convinced that fences don’t unite,” Mexican Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Meade said in a June 25 statement, adding that “Mexico is convinced that our public policies should be coordinated and should recognize the importance of the border for competitiveness, job creation and the social well being of both countries.”

Likewise, the fight on Capitol Hill is already well under way with Democratic and Republican senators trading barbs about the costs of the plan.

At issue is an amendment to the upper chamber’s immigration bill approved this week and pushed by Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota. If enacted, the duo’s plan would require US officials to spend about $38 billion on technologies and security personnel along America’s southern border.

Specifically, the legislation calls for 20,000 new Border Patrol agents — more than doubling the number of boots currently on the ground — along with a wish list that includes four more drones on top of the 10 that the CBP already flies, 30 marine vessels, 17 more Huey helicopters, 10 converted and five new Black Hawk helicopters, and hundreds of ground sensors, and fixed and mobile surveillance systems.

The amendment also calls for sophisticated surveillance gear that has proven itself on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. It requests eight VADER (Vehicle Dismount and Exploitation Radar) systems for manned and unmanned aircraft.

The National Guard is also asked to provide additional drones and helicopters for use along the border, and to man road checkpoints in southwestern states.

Even with these expensive goals, the Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano “is being given pretty wide leeway to field these systems or buy other systems” if they’re found to be more effective, Christopher Wilson, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Mexico Institute said.

Putting a new $46 billion bill on the table at a time when the federal government is struggling with sequestration is hardly a home run, but Wilson said that “if we’re going to make this huge investment, in terms of border security we’re going to get a smaller return on investment than you would expect, but there will still be a return on your investment in terms of security.”

Republican and Democratic senators agree that’s a big price to pay. But that’s where the agreements cease.

Corker, during a brief interview Thursday, defended the pricey plan. The funding for the added personnel, drone aircraft, sensors and other items “is appropriated in advance,” he said.

“The Homeland Security official has the ability to charge fees” related to immigration, Corker said, insisting the people and hardware would not require additional DHS funds outside those raised by his legislation.

“On top of that [the proposed fees], you’ve got $197 billion that’s coming in if this bill passes that we wouldn’t otherwise have,” Corker said.

Corker was referring to a Congressional Budget Office report on the immigration plan released this week that found, if enacted, it would “decrease federal budget deficits through the changes in direct spending and revenues just discussed by $197 billion over the 2014-2023 period.” (The $38 billion price estimate of the Corker-Hoeven plan, however, was not part of the CBO “score,” meaning it likely would bring down that $197 billion figure.)

Some Senate Democrats, however, expressed sticker shock.

Sen. Carl Levin, a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he has “concerns” about the price tag

“It’s a major add on, in terms of cost,” Levin said during a brief interview. “I don’t think [the Corker-Hoeven plan] is fully paid for.”

Another Democrat, who sits on two spending-focused panels, also is worried about the bill’s added costs in a time of alleged austerity.

“Yes, I am concerned that in order to get to passage of the final bill we are adding significant costs without a thorough and close examination of the value to be achieved through the spending,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a member of the Senate’s Appropriations and Budget committees

Asked by Defense News whether DHS can afford to purchase, operate and maintain expensive hardware like drone aircraft, helicopters and sensors during a time of declining security budgets, Coons replied: “Only if we achieve the bigger budget deal.”

But the amendment’s proponents, which includes Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., call the Corker-Hoeven plan for a beefed up border presence “a wise investment.”

The Democratic and Republican senators who spoke with Defense News on Thursday were quick to note the enactment of a final immigration reform bill is a way off. The House must first pass its own version, then a bicameral conference committee would have to come up with a final version that pleases both chambers and the White House.

But the Corker-Hoeven plan could be a bit of a shot in the arm for a US defense sector that is looking at decreasing Pentagon spending. Defense companies have already moved toward the homeland security sector as a source of new revenue.

General Dynamics, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and the American arm of the Israeli company Elbit are already competing fiercely for the CBP’s Integrated Fixed Tower (IFT) solicitation, slated to be awarded by this fall.

The IFT program is the CBP’s second ambitious attempt to install a series of networked surveillance towers equipped with radar and day/night cameras that will stand watch over the border region.

Government documents have pegged the contract’s value at about $1.1 billion, and the DHS fiscal 2014 budget request asked for $77.4 million for the program.

The IFT program comes on the heels of the $1 billion flameout that was the Secure Border Initiative (SBInet), which was canceled in January 2011 after managing to install a handful of towers over only 53 miles of the 389-mile Arizona border.

That program’s goals were essentially the same as that of the IFT program, though poor contract writing and management by the government, and the inability of lead contractor Boeing to deliver on all of the government’s demands curtailed the program.

In the end, Sen. Corker sounded a realistic note on the bill.

“[The House] can always whittle it down. I wouldn’t assume the House is going to take up our bill to begin with,” said Corker, adding: “I would assume they would start from the beginning” and take their own shot at writing a bill.

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