Illegal border crossings fell to their lowest level in at least five years in 2017, but after plunging through April, the numbers have risen each of the past eight months, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Meanwhile, the debate continues: Build a physical wall spanning from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, add more Border Patrol agents or combine better physical barriers with technology to stop drug trafficking, smuggling and illegal immigration?
Increasingly, however, it’s clear no one solution is right for everyplace. Ron Vitiello, acting deputy commissioner at CBP, said the agency intends to expand on the existing 652 miles of walls and fencing now in place – but not necessarily extend the wall the entire length of the border.
“We’re going to add to fill some of the gaps we didn’t get in the [previous] laydown, and then we’re going to prioritize some new wall [construction] across the border in places where we need it the most,” he said in a Jan. 12 TV interview.
Walls and barriers are a priority, Vitiello said in December at a CBP press conference. “In this society and all over our lives, we use walls and fences to protect things,” he said. “It shouldn’t be any different on the border.… But we’re still challenged with access, we’re still challenged with situational awareness and we’re still challenged with security on that border. We’re still arresting nearly 1,000 people a day.
“So we want to have more capability: We want more agents, we want more technology and we want that barrier to have a safer and more secure environment.”
Among the needs: Relocatable Remote Video Surveillance Systems (R-RVSS) that can be picked up and moved to where they’re needed most as border activity ebbs and flows in response to CBP’s border actions.
CBP mapped its fencing against its 2017 apprehension record in December (see map), finding that areas with physical fencing, such as near the metropolitan centers of San Diego/Tijuana, Tucson/Nogales and El Paso/Juarez are just as likely to see illegal migration activity as unfenced areas in the Laredo/Nueva Laredo area.
Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), vice chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, is an advocate for technology as both a complement to and an alternative to physical walls and fences. “A wall from sea to shining sea is the least effective and most expensive solution for border security,” he argued Jan. 16. “This is especially true in areas like Big Bend National Park, where rough terrain, natural barriers and the remoteness of a location render a wall or other structure impractical and ineffective.”
CBP has successfully tested and deployed video surveillance systems to enhance situational awareness on the border and help Border Patrol agents track and respond to incursions. These RVSS systems use multiple day and night sensors mounted on poles to create an advance warning and tracking system identifying potential border-crossing activity. Officers can monitor those sensors feeds remotely and dispatch agents as needed.
Savvy smugglers are quick to adjust when CBP installs new technologies, shifting their routes to less-monitored areas. The new, relocatable RVSS systems (R-RVSS) make it easy for CBP to respond in kind, forcing smugglers and traffickers to constantly adapt.
Robert Gilbert, a former Border Patrol sector chief at CBP and now a senior program director for RVSS at systems integrator General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT), says relocatable systems will empower CBP with new tools and tactics. “Over the past 20 or 30 years, DOJ then CBP has always deployed technology into the busiest areas along the border, the places with the most traffic. In reality, because of the long procurement process, we usually deployed too late as the traffic had shifted to other locations on the border. The big difference with this capability is you can pick it up and move it to meet the evolving threat. The technology can be relocated within days.”
GDIT fielded a three-tower system in CBP’s Laredo (Texas) West area last summer and a similar setup in McAllen, Texas, in December. The towers – set two to five miles apart – were so effective, CBP is now preparing to buy up to 50 more units to deploy in the Rio Grande sector, where the border follows the river through rugged terrain. There, a physical wall may not be viable, while a technology-based virtual wall could prove highly effective.
Each tower includes an 80-foot-tall collapsible pole that can support a sensor and communications payload weighing up to 2,000 pounds. While far in excess of current needs, it provides a growth path to hanging additional sensors or communications gear if requirements change later on.
When CBP wants to move the units, poles are collapsed, sensors can be packed away and a standard 3/4- or 1-ton pickup truck can haul it to its next location.
Roughly two-thirds of the U.S.-Mexico border runs through land not currently owned by the federal government, a major hurdle when it comes to building permanent infrastructure like walls or even fixed-site towers. Land acquisition would add billions to the cost even if owners agree to the sale. Where owners decline, the government might still be able to seize the land under the legal procedure known as eminent domain, but such cases can take years to resolve.
By contrast, R-RVSS requires only a temporary easement from the land owner. Site work is bare bones: no concrete pad, just a cleared area measuring roughly 40 feet by 40 feet. It need not be level – the R-RVSS system is designed to accommodate slopes up to 10 degrees. Where grid power is unavailable – likely in remote areas – a generator or even a hydrogen fuel cell can produce needed power.
What’s coming next
CBP seeks concepts for a Modular Mobile Surveillance System (M2S2) similar to RVSS, which provide the Border Patrol with an even more rapidly deployable system for detecting, identifying, classifying and tracking “vehicles, people and animals suspected of unlawful border crossing activities.”
More ambitiously, CBP also wants such systems to incorporate data science and artificial intelligence to add a predictive capability. The system would “detect, identify, classify, and track equipment, vehicles, people, and animals used in or suspected of unlawful border crossing activities,” and employ AI to help agents anticipate their direction so they can quickly respond, and resolve each situation.
At the same time, CBP is investigating RVSS-like systems for coastal areas. Deploying pole-mounted systems would train their sensors to monitor coastal waters, where smugglers in small boats seek to exploit the shallows by operating close to shore, rather than the deeper waters patrolled by Coast Guard and Navy ships.
In a market research request CBP floated last June, the agency described a Remote Surveillance System Maritime (RSS-M) as “a subsystem in an overall California Coastal Surveillance demonstration.” The intent: to detect, track, identify, and classify surface targets of interest, so the Border Patrol and partner law enforcement agencies can interdict such threats.
Rep. Hurd, Rep. Peter Aguilar (D-Calif.) and a bipartisan group of 49 other congress members support the ‘‘Uniting and Securing America Act of 2017,’’ or “USA Act.” The measure included a plan to evaluate every mile of the U.S.-Mexico border to determine the best security solution for each. After weeks of Senate wrangling over immigration matters, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) offered a companion bill in the Senate on Feb. 5.
With 820 miles of border in his district, Hurd says, few in Congress understand the border issue better than he – or feel it more keenly.
“I’m on the border almost every weekend,” he said when unveiling the proposal Jan. 16. The aim: “Full operational control of our border by the year 2020,” Hurd told reporters. “We should be able to know who’s going back and forth across our border. The only way we’re going to do that is by border technologies.” And in an NPR interview that day, he added: “We should be focused on outcomes. How do we get operational control of that border?”
The USA Act would require the Department of Homeland Security to “deploy the most practical and effective technology available along the United States border for achieving situational awareness and operational control of the border by Inauguration Day 2021, including radar surveillance systems; Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radars (VADER); three-dimensional, seismic acoustic detection and ranging border tunneling detection technology; sensors, unmanned cameras, drone aircraft and anything else that proves more effective or advanced. The technology is seen as complementing and supporting hard infrastructure.