Note: Locals will find some of their conclusions a bit dubious.
Especially the "net zero".
Cover Story: Despite Calls for Fencing-In the Border, U.S. Sticks
with Surveillance and Comms on Southwest Borders
Mar. 22, 2012 - 06:45PM | By Keith Button |
A team of researchers from Princeton University calculates that the
security of the border between the U.S. and Mexico is better than
ever. But with more cameras being erected, and more aircraft and
agents patrolling the border, U.S. analysts caution that intelligence
sharing among agents and dispatchers must continue to improve if this
trend is to continue. On top of that, doubters outside the Obama
administration are yet to be convinced these high-tech solutions make
more financial and strategic sense than attempting to block the
entire border with fences.
The Obama administration has stuck by its high-tech approach and
resisted calls, sometimes voiced by presidential campaigners, to
build physical fencing along the entire nearly 2,000-mile southwest
border. In March 2009, the Department of Homeland Security announced
it would begin rushing more patrols and equipment to the southwest
border partly to make up for delays in developing the now-cancelled
Secure Border Initiative network, a proposed virtual fence of camera
towers and communications equipment. The steps included assigning
1,000 more border patrol agents to the southwest, increasing
intelligence analysis and expanding unmanned Predator aircraft
surveillance along the Mexican border, for a total of $600 million in
In addition, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency plans to
add more unmanned aircraft to the border surveillance fleet of 127
manned aircraft and four unmanned airplanes. DHS and CBP have also
deployed additional "non-intrusive" inspection equipment to the
border area, including mobile surveillance systems, remote video
surveillance systems, thermal imaging systems, radiation portal
monitors and license plate readers.
DHS is not backing off its focus on technology over physical walls,
although barriers have been erected along some stretches of the
border. When DHS cancelled its SBInet contract with Boeing in January
2011, it announced it would continue to build the virtual fence with
less expensive, commercially available equipment, including unmanned
aircraft, thermal imaging devices, backscatter units, mobile radios
and remote video surveillance systems.
Ever since, ISR companies have been trying to catch the eye of DHS
officials with equipment they promise can scan more terrain or link
border patrol agents with dispatchers and each other more
effectively. Two of the companies are ITT Exelis with its GNOMAD (for
Global Network On the Move — Active Distribution) mobile satellite
communications network, and Northrop Grumman with its optionally
piloted Fire Scout aircraft.
GNOMAD provides connections to commercial Ku-band satellites from
moving vehicles anywhere in the world, said Ross Osbourne, senior
business development manager at ITT Exelis. The nearly flat antenna
can be mounted on top of a minivan or SUV — extending radio
communications or computer connections to border patrol agents out of
reach of radios or cell coverage.
GNOMAD costs $300,000, compared with at least $500,000 for competing
systems, and is less conspicuous than parabolic dish systems that
have been used on U.S. Army vehicles, Osbourne said. A backpack-
portable version of GNOMAD, weighing less than 50 pounds, is under
For overhead border surveillance, Northrop says Firebird has big
advantages. It can carry up to five sensors at a time, which makes it
more cost effective than flying multiple aircraft with fewer sensors.
It can be converted from its manned to unmanned mode in the time it
takes to refuel, said Rick Crooks, Northrop's program director for
Firebird. In piloted mode, it can be flown through commercial
airspace without the special permission the Federal Aviation
Administration requires for unmanned aircraft — a process that can
take months or years, Crooks said.
Last year, Doug Massey, head of Princeton University's Mexican
Migration Project, reported that net migration from Mexico had
reached zero for the first time in 60 years.
Policymakers and presidential candidates have argued about whether
U.S.-Mexico border security is best served by physical fences or a so-
called virtual fence, utilizing cameras and other ground and airborne
sensors. Another point of contention is which approach — the virtual
equipment currently in place or the partial physical fencing along
the border — is responsible for the net-zero immigration.
For the nearly 2,000-mile border, in some locations a physical fence
can serve as a good tool for limiting illicit cross-border traffic,
but in other locations, fencing doesn't make sense, said Christopher
Wilson, program associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow
Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
"Building a 10-foot fence on top of a several thousand foot mountain,
for instance, is not helpful. If someone is willing and able to climb
the mountain, they will also be able to climb the fence," Wilson said.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings
Institution, said a virtual fence has several advantages over the
"The problem with the [physical] fence is, it's surmountable — it can
be overcome," Felbab-Brown said. It also causes problems for border
communities — preventing wildlife migration, including bats that
pollinate crops; denying water access to farmers along the Rio Grande
River portion of the border; and disrupting trans-border communities
whose economies rely on commerce from cross-border flow, she said.
"The technological virtual border has turned out [to be] surprisingly
effective. And the amount of detection that can be attributed to the
visual sensors and other sensors that are around the border is
great," Felbab-Brown said. "I think the claims of the security
benefits of the physical fence are questionable, and the costs are
Determining what factors or policies have led to the net-zero
migration from Mexico is difficult, Felbab-Brown said. Besides the
two fence concepts, violence in Mexico against potential border
crossers, the economic downturn in the U.S. and the increasing
opportunities in Mexico have all played a role, she said.
The U.S. economy was probably the main factor, Wilson said. "A large
part of it was, we saw a huge change happen in the flow of
unauthorized immigrants after and during the financial crisis in the
U.S. So as there were fewer employment opportunities in the U.S.,
there was less of a magnet for Mexicans to pick up and move to the
United States in search of a good job," he said.
POINTS OF ENTRY While most people tend to think about border threats
in terms of drug tunnels and armed bands roaming through the desert,
the fact is that illicit traffic is more likely to come into the U.S.
through ports of entry than between them, Wilson said.
The most important places to apply intelligence-gathering technology
are the ports of entry, Wilson said, pointing to examples such as
license plate readers, trusted traveler programs and analytical
approaches to identifying low- and high-risk traffic.
Trusted-traveler programs free up resources to focus on higher-level
risk individuals or situations, Wilson said. SENTRI, or the Secure
Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection, is the U.S.
Customs and Border Protection's trusted-traveler program that allows
pre-approved, low-risk travelers crossing the Mexican border to
access dedicated commuter traffic lanes, which expedites their
crossing. Free and Secure Trade, or FAST, is a similar program for
commercial truck drivers.
DHS is focusing on a "risk segmentation" concept, separating high-
risk and low-risk pools of individuals for analysis, Wilson said. The
department has hired consulting companies, including the firm of
former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration head Robert Bonner, to
create risk-analysis models.
"The idea is, you're not just trying to identify the guy with drugs
or something worse, in the case of terrorism, trying to cross the
border," Wilson said. "But you're also trying to facilitate the flow
of people that you know aren't presenting that sort of a risk."
DHS also seeks to increase the amount of information known regarding
individual border crossers to help establish a risk level for each
crosser, Wilson said. Examples of this include the trusted traveler
programs, fingerprinting every illegal immigrant picked up at the
border and accessing data compiled by other agencies or by the
DHS reported in October that it had started operating a new Border
Intelligence Fusion Section, partnering with the Drug Enforcement
Administration and the Defense Department. With the fusion
initiative, the agency stores and synthesizes available Mexican
border intelligence from federal, state, local and tribal agencies at
the El Paso Intelligence Center. The goal is to create a common
DHS also reported efforts with Mexico to build an interoperable cross-
border communications network to coordinate law-enforcement issues.
"Mexican authorities are keen to share intelligence with the United
States regarding organized crime and any potential terrorist
threats," Wilson said. "They are less interested in calling up their
American counterparts to let them know where a group of migrants are
seeking to cross the border."
Mexican authorities are more likely to cooperate and share
intelligence when the U.S. shows that it is targeting migrant-
smuggling rings instead of individuals looking to better support
their families, he said.
How well the Mexican and U.S. governments cooperate on intelligence
sharing is largely unknown because Mexico doesn't want to appear to
be compromising its national security, Felbab-Brown said. Meanwhile,
U.S. officials, especially at the local level, are often reluctant to
trust their Mexican colleagues because of problems with deep,
persistent corruption and chance of information leaks to criminal
But there is a lot of information-sharing between the two sides,
including intelligence acquired from ISR sensors on the U.S. side and
transferred to the Mexicans, she said. Increasingly, the U.S. is
handing over technology to the Mexicans, including unmanned aircraft
to be flown out of Mexico.
"We also know that a great deal of intelligence that has enabled hits
against the drug-trafficking groups has come from the U.S," including
phone intercepts, Felbab-Brown said. Most of the intelligence-sharing
and technology transfers are focused on drug-trafficking groups, and
not on people flows, she said.