WASHINGTON — The bipartisan immigration proposal filed this month in the Senate would create a 24/7 surveillance system at U.S. borders that would rely significantly on increased use of drones.
Under the bill, no immigrant with provisional legal status could apply for a green card if the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t effectively secured the border – a benchmark that border hawks want tied to citizenship. And to do that, the bill recommends increasing the use of unmanned aircraft, remotely controlled by crews miles away and tasked with what U.S. Customs and Border Protection has characterized as scouting out “potential terrorist and illegal cross-border missions.”
Currently, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection – an arm of the Department of Homeland Security that includes the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Division and the U.S. Border Patrol – operates 10 unarmed drones.
The primary role of drones, agency officials say, is to monitor areas where on-the-ground sensors detect the movement of large animals – or people. In these situations, deploying a helicopter or light aircraft could be a waste of manpower if the movement turned out to be from non-threats like cattle.
But the inclusion of drones as a part of immigration reform has drawn harsh criticism – especially because of the program’s high costs and questionable effectiveness at the border. Some say the call for more unmanned aerial vehicles in the immigration proposal amounts to nothing more than political posturing – to look tough on border security while offsetting conservative criticism over offering a path to citizenship to the 11 million living in the United States illegally.
“There’s been no evidence that (drones) have protected the homeland,” said Tom Barry, director of the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy, a liberal Washington think tank. “It’s just a political measure to show border security credentials of the immigration reform.”
For drone use and maintenance operations between 2006 and 2011, Customs and Border Protection spent $55.3 million, according to a May report by the U.S. Homeland Security Department’s inspector general.
But Congress has only appropriated $12.6 million for these costs, resulting in a substantial budget shortfall. Immigration enforcement overall cost $18 billion in 2012, more than all other major criminal law enforcement agencies combined, according to a January report by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
The Homeland Security Department’s inspector general has recommended that the agency stop buying drones, saying the unmanned aircrafts are costly to maintain and have flown only a fraction of their expected flight times, from bases in Arizona, Texas, Florida and North Dakota.
“CBP has not adequately planned to fund unmanned aircraft-related equipment,” such as ground-control stations, ground-support equipment, cameras and navigation systems, the inspector general report said. “As a result of CBP’s insufficient funding approach, future UAS (unmanned aerial systems) missions may have to be curtailed.”
Customs and Border Protection’s drone system was responsible for 143 out of 365,000 apprehensions last year on the border, less than .04 percent of those attempting to enter America illegally, an agency report for fiscal 2012 found. The drones seized 66,000 pounds of drugs – less than 3 percent of all drugs identified by border agents.
Customs and Border Protection officials say that despite the language in the proposed Senate bill, unless there’s more money attached to it they won’t be buying additional drones anyway. So far, the eight senators developing the bipartisan immigration legislation haven’t identified its funding mechanism.
The agency has yet to issue an operations and maintenance budget request for its drone program, despite a recommendation to do so from the Department of Homeland Security.
Nevertheless, privacy advocates worry the drones might take on another, if unintentional, function: collecting information on U.S. citizens who live within 100 miles of the border.
“Even if the official policy is against domestic spying, we don’t know how that translates into actual practice,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union. “They’re still looking at things from the air – what happens if they see something of interest? Are they going to notify the law enforcement?”
But Customs and Border Protection officials say they abide by a policy that any information irrelevant to border security or missions is discarded. The agency, they say, is operating the drones at 19,000 feet, a level that doesn’t allow drones to detect the activities occurring inside residents’ homes.
The agency in 2005 first used a Predator drone to carry out law enforcement operations on the southwest border. In 2009, drones were placed along the northern border.
And while the agency doesn’t have money now for more drones, Customs and Border Protection officials don’t expect drone use to dissipate, though it could take awhile to put more in the sky unless Congress appropriates more money.
The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.