Border Security Concerns Aren’t Limited to the South

The U.S. border with Canada stretches 5,525 miles from Maine to Alaska, nearly three times as long as the southern border with Mexico. But securing the southern border consumes more than eight times the resources.

That could change.

All indications suggest the southern border is gradually becoming more secure. But as tougher immigration policies, improved infrastructure and new technology produce the desired results, officials say, early indications suggest activity may be heating up on the northern border. As with any other economic problem, constricted demand in one place creates opportunity somewhere else. “If you’re going to have a decrease in people coming across the border, you’re going to see an increase” in activity elsewhere, says Kate Mills, formerly director of legislative affairs for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and now with the Monument Policy Group. Asked later about the northern border, she noted: “There is already an increase in Mexicans travelling to Canada.” Her implication: Some of those individuals are probably seeking an easier way into the United States.

The 1,989-mile-long border with Mexico is manned by more than 17,000 agents, while the northern border is manned by only about 2,000 border patrol officers, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) data.

Border security can resemble squeezing a balloon: Press on one end and it just pushes the air to the other. That’s why flexibility –in where CBP deploys forces as well as in which systems it employs in each location – is an increasingly important concern.

“Clearly the focus has been on the southern border, and appropriately so,” said Jay Ahern, a former CBP acting commissioner now with The Chertoff Group, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm. But the northern border has been largely taken for granted. Its great length, characterized by dense forest and the Great Lakes, poses significant challenges. “There has been a lack of resources put to the northern border.”

Manning on both borders has increased significantly since 9/11. The southern border expanded from about 9,000 to about 16,000 agents in that time, while the northern border patrol increased from about 600 to 2,000. Now, as Congress considers the president’s request to add 5,000 more officers, some are concerned that it should be left to CPB to decide where those forces should be deployed. In the past, Congress sought to set limits on how those resources were used.

It’s all part of a pattern in which people focus on the physical border and forget about the bigger picture. “Too often we focus on the border,” Ahern said on April 11 at the Border Security Expo in San Antonio. “We say: ‘Let’s build a bunch of fence, let’s hire a bunch of new agents for enforcement.’ But it has to be a really comprehensive plan.”

The plan requires coordination with foreign policy, across agencies – including with the State and Defense departments, strong border security controls and strong internal law enforcement – all with support from local jurisdictions and private employers – through programs like e-Verify, a system for proving eligibility to work.

CBP, Ahern said, “needs the flexibility to move resources to where the threat is.”

Along the southern border, CBP does that today, routinely shifting resources as the threat changes. Most recently, after strengthening the border in Arizona, attention has begun to shift to Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, which CBP now sees as its biggest current area of vulnerability.

Having the flexibility to quickly respond to changing threats is a critical piece of CBP’s strategy. The agency wants to invest in Relocatable Remote Video Surveillance Systems (R-RVSS), rather than permanent sites, because these trailer-mounted systems could be quickly hitched up to a truck and moved to where they can have the greatest effect. Fixed locations require site preparation, making them more expensive to install and complicated to move. CBP awarded the R-RVSS program to General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT), of Fairfax, Va., under the Federal Aviation Administration Technical Support Services Contract (TSSC-4).

In a joint announcement April 11, GDIT and CBP said RVSS has achieved “Full Operating Capability” on the southern border, where GDIT built and installed fixed-location RVSS systems in Nogales, Douglas, Naco, Yuma, and Ajo, Arizona. Additional relocatable deployments are planned in McAllen and Laredo, Texas later this year.

CBP sought additional ideas for remote video surveillance in a January request for information. With both fixed and mobile RVSS systems already in place in the south, the agency plans to add them to sites along the northern border, including Buffalo, N.Y., and Detroit.

“Currently we use a variety of technologies” on the southern border, said Benjamin Huffman, chief of strategic planning and analysis for the U.S. Border Patrol. These include RVSS, mobile surveillance systems and in the most remote areas, long-range radar-equipped Integrated Fixed Towers, along with aerostats, manned and unmanned aircraft and unattended ground sensors.

“Relocatable surveillance is an important tool to have in our security system,” Huffman says. “As these walls go up, as we’ve seen historically, it will shift some traffic. So the relocatable pieces allow us to flex with the flow of that traffic.”

It’s all part of a strategy aimed at having full operational control of the border, in which the wall impedes breaches, technology provides situational awareness and people use that awareness to stop those unimpeded by physical barriers.

Technology underpins the entire strategy. “That technology piece is going to be key,” Huffman said.

Indeed, gathering the technology is only half the battle. Making sense of it – rapidly identifying the nature of a threat and dispatching an appropriate response – remains a work in progress. Along the whole stretch of the southern border, CBP is just one piece of a coordinated multi-agency effort including the Coast Guard, ICE and other agencies. Together, they collectively manage information gathering and interdiction activities in the air, on the ground and at sea.

As more sensors are added, the need to fuse and sort those inputs and turn raw data into actionable intelligence will become the next frontier in border security.

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