By Issie Lapowsky and Lily Hay Newman for WIRED.
If Congress were to fail to pass a spending bill before the end of the day Friday, the government could shut down. That’s why President Trump just blinked. He shelved a plan to demand that funding for a border wall be included in that bill after both Democrats and Republicans voiced fierce opposition.
President Trump seemed intent on avoiding the humiliation of seeing his plan for a “big, beautiful wall” shut down along with the government, particularly when his own party controls Congress. Throughout his campaign, he sold the wall to his base as a bold symbol of his commitment to cracking down on illegal immigration. And so presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway took to the airwaves Tuesday to run cover for the president as his plans faltered. “Building that wall and having it funded remains an important priority to him,” Conway said on Fox & Friends. “But we also know that that can happen later this year and into next year.” Instead, Conway said, “smart technology” would enhance border security in the interim.
That may be just a rhetorical gesture on Conway’s part, but it’s one the Trump administration ought to take seriously. To protect the border in a way that’s both effective and cost-effective, tech is at least as critical as any physical barrier.
“You will not find a border patrol agent or border enforcement officer who’s not going to be extremely supportive of technological capabilities being brought to bear on the border,” says David Aguilar, former commissioner of US Customs and Border Patrol, who now serves as principal of the security consulting firm GSIS.
Aguilar agrees with the president that some sort of physical infrastructure is necessary to curb illegal immigration. But, he says, “a wall placed where it needs to be placed, designed the way it needs to be designed, is still going to be breached.” Border agents require surveillance tools to detect those breaches, he says.
Right now, much of the border is woefully ill-equipped for such surveillance, says US representative Will Hurd. Hurd, a Republican, spent nearly a decade serving as an undercover CIA agent before becoming the congressional representative for Texas’ 23rd district, which stretches some 820 miles along the US-Mexico border. Along the border’s 300-mile El Paso Sector, just 60 miles have cameras, he says — and the technology that does exist in those places is outdated.
“When my colleagues in Congress recognize technology is not being deployed as broadly as people assume, then they recognize what we need to change and tweak is more tech,” Hurd says.
Some 700 miles of fencing already line the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border, and last year 17,000 border patrol agents worked to stop illegal entry to the US from the south. Experts and public officials agree that supporting these human and physical barriers with a range of technology more efficiently tracks illegal border crossings.
“It’s really just about integrating these different types of sensors into a structure where they can communicate effectively,” says Christopher Wilson, the deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center who specializes in border and immigration issues.
This includes placing infrared sensors, cameras, and radar on the ground, on fences, and on towers. Customs and Border Protection also surveils from the sky using drones, radar-equipped blimps, manned planes, and helicopters. The agency has also been working to deploy more sensors and help them all talk to one another through its so-called Integrated Fixed Towers program. These instrument arrays work with existing ground sensors, aerial monitoring, and video surveillance to give patrol agents live feedback about what’s going on along the border.
A predecessor to the Integrated Fixed Towers program, known as the Secure Border Initiative, was an example of a border tech project that blew through its budget and faced delays. By contrast, the Fixed Towers program has used $23 million of its total slated $145 million so far, and Customs and Border Protection reported to Congress last year that the towers being tested were functioning as intended. Overall, the agency has consistently argued that it favors a “virtual wall.”
“If you were to build a wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, you would still have to back that wall up with patrolling by human beings, by sensors, by observation devices,” Homeland Security secretary John Kelly saidrecently.
See You In 2018
Of course, as with most things, it would be a mistake to believe that throwing technology at the problem will solve everything. What the country needs, experts say, are better measurements to determine how effective these tools and policy approaches are at stopping illegal border crossings and drug trafficking. “I’d want to see a larger set of metrics about what our existing investments in infrastructure and technology have gotten us,” says Theresa Cardinal Brown, who directs immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
President Trump, for one, has been celebrating the 40 percent decline in apprehensions at the southern border between January and February of this year. But, Brown notes, “Apprehensions on their own do not tell you how secure the border is.”
Neither does the size or completeness of a border wall, says Hurd. “The metric isn’t, ‘Have we built a wall?’” he says. “It’s have we seen a decrease in illegal crossings and the amount of drugs coming into the country?” Hurd believes that even President Trump’s supporters who chanted about a building wall at his campaign rallies are more interested in those measurable results than they are in an actual wall. “That’s ultimately what Americans want to see,” he says.
Whether the same thing holds for President Trump is an different question entirely. It already seems that this spending bill is far from the end of the negotiation as far as he is concerned. Speaking to reporters at a briefing Tuesday, press secretary Sean Spicer made that much clear. “I think the president has been very clear that he wants a wall,” Spicer said. “He wants it done as soon as we can do it.”
More from WIRED: