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The Virtual Border Returns and Becomes Part of the Game

Mexico’s border with the United States is the most visible symbol in the war against illegal immigration. Radical and moderate politicians in the Republican Party, and some Democrats, agree that the area needs to be fortified despite the fact that the number of undocumented individuals crossing the border has diminished.

They do differ as to the magnitude of the project. The most ambitious proposal, advocated by Donald Trump, consists of building a concrete wall along a distance of almost 2,000 miles.

In any case, the border is once again a business opportunity for security and defense companies. In addition to the physical barriers already installed, the federal government is betting on a technology that already failed.

In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security saw it necessary to cancel the SBInet Program, a virtual border surveillance project that had been assigned to the Boeing Company. Up to that moment it had cost $1.1 billion and covered only 53 miles in the state of Arizona.

“The technology they used did not work at all. Because it was in the desert and the sand was a problem for the cameras. When there was a wind, the cameras wouldn’t work. Nor could they distinguish between immigrants and animals crossing the desert,” explained Marc Rosenblum, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an arm of the U.S. Congress, detected 1,300 defects in the equipment. Among these defects it cited failed tests and systematic shortcomings.

The virtual wall has been put up again. The government awarded a contract for the acquisition of an integrated fixed tower to Elbit Systems of America, a subsidiary of the Israeli firm Elbit Systems Ltd. In order to obtain the $145 million contract, Elbit Systems presented, as part of its experience, the building of the wall that separates Israel from Palestine, known as the Israeli West Bank Barrier. This contract is part of a $700 million package.

The execution of the new contract is already showing troublesome signs. In March of 2014, GAO director Rebecca Gambler testified before a Subcommittee of the House of Representatives that, generally speaking, the calendars and estimates for the programs “met some but not all best practices” She cited that “the schedule for the IFT program partially met the characteristic of being credible in that CBP had performed a schedule risk analysis for the program, but the risk analysis was not based on any connection between risks and specific activities.”

The States Also Weep

In seeking and obtaining funds, several states now understand how effective it is when they include any one of the several expressions of the fear of illegal immigration. Texas has taken the lead and has succeeded in this as part of the plan to fortify the border shared with Mexico.

In an unprecedented decision, the state will spend $800 million during the next two years in a security operation designed to block the way for immigrants that enter into the United States by way of its southern border. In this way, Texas becomes the state along the Mexican border that is spending the most in this effort. Expenditures by New Mexico, Arizona and California combined are less than one percent of what Texas is earmarking for that purpose.

“We’re spending even more dollars in new police personnel, cameras to detect activity along the border, as well as more aircraft and boats that will allow us to secure the border […] No price to be paid is sufficient for protecting people’s safety in this country,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said to Univision.

In defending the budgetary allocation of $800 million to Operation Strong Safety (OSS), state authorities emphasize the need to increase surveillance in the 15 counties along the border with Mexico, for purposes of curtailing the flow of undocumented immigrants that cross the border. Paradoxically, state authorities cannot directly interfere with people who enter into the country without any immigration documents because this matter is the responsibility of the federal government. In this way, the role played by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) is limited.

“Today, we’re still seeing nearly 15,000 people crossing the border each month, without permission to do so,” Abbott said upon being challenged about the high cost of the OSS. “We don’t know who these people are, what we do know is that an ever greater number is from countries other than Mexico, countries that have ties to terrorism. Our job and my job as governor is to be sure to keep Texas safe,” the governor added.


Nine of the ten largest ICE detention centers are private.

Despite the multi-million-dollar expenditure, during the first nine months of implementing the OSS, from June of 2014 to February of 2015, DPS officials arrested just 53 people suspected of committing some crime, according to figures issued by the agency to Univision Investiga.

During the same period, when $102 million were allocated to the special surveillance operation, state police officers conducted 156 operations that led to the confiscation of drugs, while 7 resulted in the confiscation of firearms, which is almost like spending half a million dollars on each of these actions.

“I hadn’t seen those numbers and it surprises me that they’re so low,” Texas Democratic State Senator from Brownsville Eddie Lucio acknowledged to Univision. These figures were not submitted to legislators during the analysis of the legislation that fast-tracked the $800 million funding for extending the OSS.

Despite the lack of information, Lucio voted in favor of extending the OSS for the next two years.

While the border is becoming militarized, statistics from the Department of Homeland Security indicate that the number of apprehended undocumented immigrants is diminishing. During the first six months of fiscal year 2015, the number of apprehensions decreased by 28 percent in comparison with the same fiscal period in 2014.

From September of 2014 to March of 2015 there were 151,805 apprehensions, 60,000 less than in the same period of the previous fiscal year.

“It’s all political, all political,” opines Sylvia García, Texas State Senator from Houston, upon reflecting on the measures initiated by Texas authorities to safeguard the border shared with the Mexican Republic.

“That’s a lot of money to spend on border security, when that’s not the state’s job or responsibility. They (Texas authorities) say it’s because the feds are not doing their job. But if you look at the facts, the feds are there,” concluded the state senator, who voted against the package of measures that extended the OSS until 2017.

As part of the security operation, hundreds of DPS officers were mobilized to the border counties. A year later their presence is more noticeable along stretches of U.S. Route 83, which runs through five of these counties in the border region, and then heads northward away from the border.

“They’re issuing many traffic tickets for not wearing a seat belt, going over the speed limit, or running a red light. But that’s not their concern, that’s something we can do,” assures José ‘Fito’ Salinas, mayor of La Joya.

According to the mayor, state officers should focus their efforts on the war against the violence generated by the illegal drug market in the region, and not so much on enforcing traffic laws. Salinas points out that the municipality he governs, 15 miles west of McAllen, has lost half its usual revenues derived from traffic tickets that are no longer being issued by his local police officers, causing a budgetary problem for the city government.

In Starr County, traffic violation spiraled upward by 233 percent, compared to 2012, according to an analysis in the El Paso Times.

Residents in the region have also expressed concern for the large number of state officers on the highways. Organizations such as La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) – The Entire People’s Union – have reported cases of several drivers being turned over to immigration authorities in cases where they have been unable to prove to DPS officers their legal presence in the country.

“It’s a situation that creates panic in the community,” commented John Michael Torres of the LUPE.

As part of expanding the OSS, 250 new DPS officers will be hired over the next two years.

For security analyst Nelson Balido, the massive mobilization of state police officers to the border as part of the special safety operation was a “precipitous” decision, tainted with political overtones. “The flow of unaccompanied children was already diminishing, but it was when the news broke out that everybody wanted to do something about it […] Among the agencies, there was a lack of shared information necessary for coming up with a better response,” opined Balido, for whom the best option is to increase state spending on local police departments.

During the same period in which the DPS officers took into custody 53 people, under the OSS, officers of the Hidalgo County Sherriff’s Office, with jurisdiction over the city of McAllen, carried out 7,099 arrests. The average annual budget for that agency is $25 million.

“The counties know more about their own house, about their own towns, than does any other person you might bring in from Dallas, or from Houston, or from Lubbock or El Paso,” noted Balido as he criticized the decision to bring into the Rio Grande Valle DPS officers who have been trained in other parts of the state.