The largest Border Patrol force in history has been unable to do its job, and never will, unless it is backed up with enough technology to look into every canyon and corridor and slice of sky along the entire 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, contends U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, head of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
"Securing our borders is first and foremost a national-security issue," McCaul said Monday. "We must identify the threats and be able to respond quickly, but we can't do either without seeing the entire border."
McCaul, a Republican who represents part of Harris County, was in Houston to unveil his $1 billion "Blueprint for Southern Border Security," largely based on his own trips to the border and conversations on the ground.
Foremost to his 43-page plan is getting to the point where the Border Patrol not only knows how many people are being apprehended and the quantity of drugs it is seizing but also how much it is missing.
The new technology McCaul cites ranges from radar equipment developed for spotting enemy ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, to other mechanisms that help spot Ultralight aircraft.
Speaking during a news conference at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, McCaul said he'd like to see it deployed where needed along the border, including the Rio Grande Valley, which he said is under less control than anywhere else on the border.
The result would be an ability to truly see what is happening along the entire border, he said.
The congressman's plan comes at a time when the Border Patrol has greatly expanded its force and already has deployed newer technologies, including drones, to detect those trying to cross the border.
But McCaul compared guarding the borderline to squeezing a water balloon, saying it does little good to squeeze one part of it and stop the flow of people and drugs if they are just going to squirt around and through somewhere else.
He said knowing Border Patrol statistics about the number of people arrested along the entire border without also knowing the number of people who were able to slip past, is like deciding a quarterback has had a great game because he had ten completed passes, without knowing how many passes he attempted.
Christopher Wilson, senior associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said such accountability makes sense.
"One of the main challenges is starting to understand who you are not catching, who you are not even seeing as they are coming across the border," Wilson said.
"Looking for ways to improve that understanding of what is happening makes sense if your goal is to understand what is happening at border crossings," Wilson said. "The less of that black hole you have of unidentified crossings, the better you can have a strategy."
Officials in 2013 were startled in Arizona when an airborne surveillance drone - which could look at what was coming across the border there versus what agents were able to catch - collected information that revealed agents were catching less than half the people that slipped into the United States in that area. The drone could see more people than agents were able to catch.
McCaul said he has the support of numerous federal officials for the blueprint, which he estimated would cost about $1 billion and take less than two years to implement.
He said his plan is ambitious and the price tag is significant, but pales compared to the approximately $100 billion spent on the border in the past 25 years.
David Aguilar, recently retired as acting commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, where he was formerly the chief.
Aguilar said one of the best things the Border Patrol has going for it is public support for getting the job done.
He recalled how back when he started with the patrol in 1978 there were about 2,200 agents in the entire patrol. Today there are more than 21,000, not to mention a dramatic increase in equipment in the air and on the ground. Back then, agents would do their own mechanics work on official vehicles to keep them running. Today they are supported by drones.
"The border has been transformed, certainly, to a higher degree of security," said Aguilar, who has founded the firm, Global Security & Intelligence Strategies."Does more need to be done? Absolutely," he continued." "We have to be realistic about this, acknowledging a lot of money has been spent on the border, but recognizing the point of departure: when this country started being interested in border security, we were in miserable shape."
Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at the Rice University's Baker Institute, said it is time to shift priorities.
"Border communities and cities remain some of the safest places to live," he said. "We do have a high degree of operational control along the border," he said. "It means we do have a large amount of resources and they are working."
He said McCaul's concerns and his plan were just the same rhetoric heard for years from some Texas politicians who blame the borderline for everything.
"It is a very narrow perspective on the border itself," Payan said.
When asked how he would know when the border was finally secure, McCaul said it would be simple.
"I believe it is kind of like the adage, you'll know it when you see it," he said. "You'll know it when we don't have 60,000 kids going across, you'll know it when we don't have these loads of drugs."
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