Despite Opposition to President Trump’s Wall, the Southern Border Is Being Secured

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The White House and Democrats in Congress continue to fight over the president’s plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico. While President Trump initially called for more than $4 billion of funding for the project in Fiscal Year 2018, the actual budget he submitted asked for only $1.6 billion. That said, hundreds of construction companies braved abuse, boycotts, and threats to bid on parts of the project. If approved in the final bill, this level of funding will cover only some 62 miles of the nearly 2,000 mile-long border. In addition, opposition to the plan remains so high that one might wonder if the project will ever be completed.

In reality, even before President Trump announced his plan, a significant fraction of the southern border was already protected by physical barriers. In fact, some 700 miles of fencing currently exists. Much of this fortification is designed to divert prospective entrants away from high-density population areas such as San Diego, California, and Brownsville, Texas.

A physical barrier is only one way of securing the border, but not always the most cost-effective solution. For more than a decade, the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) had to work through the myriad of challenges associated with building barriers and deploying security systems along the U.S.-Mexico border. As a result, CBP has learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Furthermore, the years the U.S. military spent fighting terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan provided additional lessons on physical and non-physical protective means while allowing for field testing of a wide variety of relevant technologies.

In many instances, a physical wall, no matter how high and thick, is not an effective way of controlling the border. The more difficult the terrain, the more challenging it is to construct a large and heavy physical barrier. Also, as CBP discovered in its initial efforts to build a wall, environmental, cultural and legal impediments can hold up construction for prolonged periods of time.

Fortunately, years of investment by the Department of Homeland Security, Intelligence Community and the Pentagon in advanced surveillance and sensing technologies, wide area communications networks, pattern recognition algorithms and power generation systems form the basis for the construction of a virtual wall along many parts of the southern border. In fact, CBP has been moving in this direction for some time.

One pilot program, the Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT) border surveillance system, designed and built by Elbit Systems of America, has been tested at several locations along the southern border and is now ready for wider deployment. The IFT system provides long-range, 360-degree, all-weather and persistent surveillance capability, employing both day and night cameras and ground surveillance radar atop tall metal towers.

Data from the sensing system is sent back to CBP command, control centers and even to laptops in individual CBP vehicles. Years of testing have provided such high-quality data that the system now can distinguish between a dog or coyote skulking in the brush and a human crawling on the ground. In addition, the supporting towers and electronic systems have been ruggedized to withstand extreme climate variations and potential sabotage.

IFT is only one part of a comprehensive surveillance architecture, called the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan, that CBP began testing a few years ago. This program also involves deploying day and night cameras in urban environments, truck-mounted sensors and aerostats with long-range cameras.

Another successful system is General Dynamics’ Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS). Using high elevation fixed towers and long-range cameras, the RVSS can look deep into Mexico from the U.S. side of the border, providing early warning of potential crossings. This system is particularly useful in providing high fidelity surveillance and warning in border areas where physical barriers cannot be erected.

The RVSS is designed to be low-cost and easily constructed. It relies largely on commercially available medium- and long-range day and night cameras, laser illuminators and microwave transmitters. The cost of each tower is relatively low and components can be readily replaced as better and cheaper systems are developed. Due to its simple and compact design, the RVSS’ sensor and communications package can also be deployed on buildings.

In its first phase, RVSS was successfully deployed and operated on fixed towers at five sites along the Arizona-Mexico border. The second phase will expand this program to some ten sites, primarily along the lower Rio Grande Valley. Later phases could see RVSS sites along much of the border, but with particular concentration in the California desert, New Mexico and West Texas.

General Dynamics has also developed a relocatable remote RVSS, essentially a mobile, all-in-one unit with an extendable tower. The system can be deployed rapidly, with almost no site preparation or ecological impact, and be left unattended for days. The expanded use of relocatable RVSS would permit CBP to rapidly cover most of the southern border at relatively low costs in just a few years. This relocatable version can be moved as the patterns of attempted border crossings change, something that cannot be done with fixed towers.

The proliferation of relatively cheap, high-fidelity surveillance systems on fixed and relocatable platforms could cover virtually the entire southern border by the end of a second Trump term. There are a few additional stretches of the border that could still benefit from a physical barrier. But the CBP’s current plan could meet much of the Trump Administration’s goal of controlling our borders more quickly and cost-efficiently than could the construction of a wall by itself.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team.

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