WASHINGTON — Tied up with the broader fight over the best way to deal with 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US is another issue: How to tighten and strengthen the process by which people enter the country while clamping down on ways in which people and goods flow illegally across land and sea borders.
Coming up with solutions to these longtime issues is complicated and expensive, as the $46 billion Senate immigration bill passed on June 24 makes clear.
The bill calls for about $40 billion to hire more than 18,000 new Border Patrol officers, which would double the size of the force. It also adds billions in new security gear and infrastructure, such as a 700-mile border fence and dozens of expensive day/night surveillance cameras and radars planted along the border with Mexico.
The House is taking a very different approach, and is working its way through five separate bills that deal with immigration and border security issues. Its pending Border Security Results Act of 2013 focuses on security and technology.
And there’s where the fireworks begin.
Speaking before the House Homeland Security subcommittee on July 23, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, one of the Hill’s most active proponents for border security reform, offered a full-throated condemnation of the Senate bill.
Cornyn said the upper chamber’s bill “could go down as one of the most massive wastes of funds in the history of the federal government” since it “blindly throws more than $46 billion in resources at the border, and contains absolutely no mechanism to ensure that these resources will be effective or properly implemented.”
Cornyn slammed other provisions in the bill that would “require DHS [Department of Homeland Security] to blindly purchase billions of dollars of specific equipment” for surveillance without including any mechanism for measuring if the technology was effective in slowing the flow of people, drugs and counterfeit items across the southern border.
The Senate bill calls for four more drones on top of the 10 that Customs and Border Protection already flies, 30 marine vessels, 17 more Huey helicopters, 10 converted and five new Black Hawk helicopters, and hundreds of ground sensors and surveillance systems, both fixed and mobile.
The DHS’s previous attempt to use technology to gain “operational control” over the border failed when the Boeing-led Secure Border Initiative (SBInet) plan was canceled in 2011 after burning through $1 billion buying cameras and sensors that were rife with performance issues, and proved too costly to purchase and maintain.
The department has had trouble coming up with a program to replace SBInet, and has yet to issue contracts to industry to upgrade the sensor and surveillance technology along the border.
The government appeared set to award a new contract for a series of integrated fixed towers — upgraded versions of what the Boeing program struggled to deliver — this year, but pushed back the award to December.
The new program is expected initially to be worth about $1.1 billion, and has had a host of defense industry giants chasing the contract.
In May, DHS issued down-select notices to General Dynamics, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and the American arm of the Israeli company Elbit to continue participate in the Integrated Fixed Tower program.
Although companies such as Boeing and Telephonics were known to have been in the running, company reps have not been able to confirm whether the company received notices.
The DHS fiscal 2014 budget request asked for $77.4 million for the Integrated Fixed Tower program.
Cornyn lauded the House’s Border Security Results Act of 2013, which includes provisions for a set of independently verified border security metrics that would allow congressional overseers to measure progress in obtaining the elusive goal of “operational control” over the border.
Cornyn traveled to the other side of Capitol Hill after his proposed amendment to the Senate’s bill was voted down in June. His amendment was similar to what is offered in the House bill, calling for a 90 percent apprehension rate on the border along with other law enforcement measures before other parts of the bill — most significantly, a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — could begin to take effect.
Testifying before the committee, Jayson Ahern, former acting commissioner of customs and border protection and assistant commissioner for field operations, also assailed the Senate’s desire to hire 18,000 agents.
Before bringing new people on, he said, “a more prudent first step would be to evaluate how the current deployment of personnel is being utilized, and determine ... how to reassign agents to where the threat has moved versus what appears to be arbitrary increases.”
Specifically, as the threat of smuggling moves from land to the sea, the government needs to consider how many agents it has that can operate in the maritime environment, and how many are trained to fly drones, he said.
Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., chairwoman of the committee, also pulled few punches when assessing the Senate bill, saying in her opening statement that “doubling the Border Patrol and tearing down hundreds of miles of fence just to rebuild it appears tough until you look deeper and ask the tough questions: Did the chief of the Border Patrol say that’s what they needed to get the job done, or did senators come up with those nice round numbers to get additional votes?”
When the House and Senate finally reach the point where they go to conference on an immigration bill, the issue of undocumented immigrants will most likely hold the attention of most of the public. But for the defense industry and Border Patrol agents doing their work in the desert, the issue of how much to spend, and on what, will no doubt loom large.