The bipartisan Senate framework for comprehensive immigration reform released on Monday puts a controversial, high-tech tool front and center: drones. The unmanned aerial vehicles allow conservatives and liberals alike to look tough on border security, but critics say the drones are a threat to civil liberties -- and the Department of Homeland Security's own inspector general says they're so wasteful that the border police should stop buying them.
Drones have evolved into a massive industry over the past decade of war, generating $1.3 billion in economic impact just in San Diego, home to Predator maker General Atomics, in 2011. Since 2004, drones haven't been deployed just to hot spots like Pakistan and Yemen in the war on al Qaeda. The Department of Homeland Security has now built a small fleet of 10 Predators, at a cost of roughly $20 million apiece, that are mostly deployed along the US-Mexico border.
The immigration framework released by eight senators on Monday promises that the legislation "will increase the number of unmanned aerial vehicles and surveillance equipment." If immigration reform goes ahead as the Senate group wants it to, drones will take on an even more important role in border security -- a development that critics say could turn the border into a virtual military zone and threaten civil liberties.
Javier H. Valdes, co-executive director of the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York, expressed concern in a statement about "undue immigration enforcement provisions in the senators' principles, including the notion that legalization for undocumented immigrants should have to wait for additional border security measures that would further militarize the southwest with aerial drones."
In 2011, American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Catherine Crump warned that expanded drone use without additional safeguards "could easily lead to police fishing expeditions and invasive, all-encompassing surveillance that would seriously erode the privacy that we have always had as Americans."
That fear has become increasingly real as Customs and Border Protection expands its program of loaning drones to federal and local law enforcement agencies -- a development, the ACLU said, that "was carried out with no public knowledge or debate."
CBP did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its use of drones. In the past, the agency has pointed to the 7,500 people and 46,000 pounds of illicit drugs -- mostly marijuana -- it says drones have kept out of U.S. territory 2005. The drones, CBP says, offer a high-tech, constant presence in the sky that can quickly spot migrants illegally crossing the border or smugglers carrying drugs.
But several problems have come along with the CBP's growing fleet. In 2006, a Predator crashed in Nogales, Ariz., narrowly missing a cluster of homes. The National Transportation Safety Board has faulted CBP for the way it ran its drone program. In May 2012, the Department of Homeland Security's own inspector general, which has internal oversight over the program, issued a report faulting CBP for its management practices and for buying more drones without a plan to make use of them.
In their primary function as border-watchers, the inspector general said, drones are a faulty and overly expensive tool. Following up on that report, an article by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that drones were sometimes stopped from taking off by high winds, and were much less productive than existing, manned planes like the P3 Orion.
"I liken it to using a Humvee as a taxicab," said David Olive, a principal at the lobbying firm Catalyst Partners and a one-time chief of staff for former US Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.). "You know what, it will work, it will do the job, but there are so many other things that will do the job better and cheaper."
The inspector general called on CBP to freeze its drone purchases. But the agency forged ahead anyways, inking a five-year, $443 million deal with General Atomics. Congress has yet to authorize the money to actually buy the drones. If immigration reform moves ahead as the Senate's gang of eight wants it to, however, that could change -- and we could see more eyes in the sky.
"It's a good idea in terms of the politics of it; everybody likes to hear about more border security before they talk about immigration reform," said Tom Barry, director of the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy. But, he added, "Does it work to control the border? No."