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Border Drones Fly Into Fight Over Immigration

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The runways at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., are busy. This is where the Army tests its military drones, where it trains its drone pilots, and where four Customs and Border Protection drones take off and land.

From here, the CBP drones survey the Arizona-Mexico border — mainly looking for immigrants and drug smugglers.

In a hangar next to the runway, Customs and Border Protection officer David Gasho swivels a globe hanging from a drone's underbelly. The globe contains a $2 million surveillance package — a night camera, a day camera, a low-light camera and laser target illumination. The drone's biggest selling point is that it can stay in the air for 20 hours.

Given budget problems, Gasho says, there isn't enough money to keep them up that long.

"We are barely hanging on five days a week, 16 hours a day here," he says. "It is very tight to do what we're doing right now."

Yet the immigration bill now under consideration by the U.S. Senate calls for drones to fly 24/7. Supporters say that means more drones are needed. But critics argue there's no evidence the drones already flying are cost-effective.

'Going To Come At A Cost'

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, wants more drones on the border. But Cuellar, co-chairman of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus — yes, drones have their own caucus — acknowledges it's an expensive proposition.

"For all those folks that've been emphasizing border security, keep in mind that it's going to come at a cost," he says. "And we've just finished cutting $3 billion from Homeland Security under sequester."

Each Predator drone now costs about $18 million to buy fully equipped and about $3,000 an hour to fly. CBP is now testing a sophisticated radar system called VADER (Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar) that costs about $5 million a year to operate. It has been used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At a congressional hearing in April, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others seemed sold on adding VADER. McCain asked Randolph Alles, the head of the CBP's Air and Marine operations: "Don't you believe that VADER plus drones could be absolute vital tools in attaining effective control of our border?"

Alles responded: "I think, sir, it will help us characterize what the border looks like."

Why More Drones?

The real problem, say critics like Tom Barry, an analyst at the liberal Center for International Policy, is that no one has demonstrated that drones are worth the cost. Barry points to a study last year by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general that criticized the border drone program for a lack of accountability.

"I'm indignant, really, in the sense that billions of dollars have been spent since the late '90s on these high-tech systems without the appropriate cost-benefit evaluations," he says.

Even CBP says it has more economical alternatives. It has been trying out a Cessna aircraft with a camera that costs one-tenth of what the Predator drone camera costs. The agency also relies on ground-based tools, such as camera and radar towers.

The Senate immigration bill does include those tools for increased border surveillance, but it singles out drones for constant flight.

Bryan Roberts, who used to evaluate border and immigration programs for the Department of Homeland Security, points out that even 24/7 surveillance won't actually catch anyone.

"The surveillance technology helps you find people, and it helps you get agents to people quickly," says Roberts, who's now with a private consulting firm. "But [to] actually track down and arrest people requires having people on the ground."

To catch 90 percent of all illegal crossers — which is what the Senate bill demands — Roberts says the Border Patrol would have to triple the number of agents on the ground from 20,000 to 60,000.

That's an enormous undertaking not in the legislation. Barry of the Center for International Policy says it's because the bill is more about politics than stopping illegal immigration.

"The border security is fear-based and also plays to the needs of a growing homeland security military complex that is benefiting from these billions of dollars spent," he says.

Barry and others say the emphasis should shift from border security to interior enforcement, such as employer verification. That, they say, would catch those crossing illegally, the people employing them, and those who entered legally and overstayed their visas.

But the politics seem clear — an immigration bill is unlikely to pass without more drones.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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