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Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - Page updated at 10:30 p.m.

Border ‘surge’ plan would be financial bonanza for private firms

By Joseph Tanfani and Brian Bennett
Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — A plan to check fingerprints of foreigners leaving the United States is popular in Congress — but not at the Department of Homeland Security, where officials say the technology would do little to halt illegal immigration.

But thanks in part to lobbying by security contractors, the Senate immigration bill that goes to the Republican-led House this week includes a computerized “biometric” exit system that could cost more than $7 billion.

The plan is part of the bill’s $46 billion “border surge” of security measures, a 10-year spending gusher that would produce a financial bonanza for some of America’s largest aerospace, technology and security companies, as well as some border states.

The legislation would force the Homeland Security Department — which has a total proposed budget of $39 billion in fiscal year 2014 — to absorb a staggering increase in funding, equipment and staff at a time when most federal agencies and departments are struggling with budget cutbacks, furloughs and reduced services.

After months of wrangling, a bipartisan group of eight senators initially had proposed spending $4.5 billion for border security as part of an overhaul of immigration law. However, that sum jumped tenfold in the final days of debate last month in a bid to win over Republicans who demanded stronger measures before they would consider a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.

If the law is enacted, the Treasury Department would set aside $46.3 billion in a special trust-fund account to protect it from lawmakers who might seek to draw on or reduce the money in future budget battles.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, considers Homeland Security acquisitions programs to be at “high risk” for abuse. A GAO report in February concluded that major acquisitions “continue to cost more than expected, take longer to deploy than planned, or deliver less capability than promised.”

Stewart Baker, former head of policy at Homeland Security, warned it would take “gut-straining effort” to complete the surge in 10 years.

The spending surge already has generated opposition in the House. The bill is “throwing $46 billion at a problem without any plan, without any strategy, without any definition of operational control,” Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

The immigration bill is unusual in its specificity. It sets aside $7.5 billion to build a 700-mile, high-tech fence, giving the secretary of Homeland Security the authority to “waive all legal requirements” to get the project built quickly.

It would spend $30 billion to add nearly 20,000 agents to the Border Patrol, doubling the size of the force and making it the nation’s biggest law-enforcement agency. Nearly all would be posted along the Southwest border.

Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, supports the bill but has said repeatedly that more border agents are not necessary.

“It’s an irrational buildup,” said Chris Rickerd, policy counsel on immigration at the American Civil Liberties Union. “It doesn’t correspond to security needs or any reasonable approach to securing the border.”

The bill specifies what the agents will get and where: 4,595 ground sensors, 507 radiation detectors, 917 camera towers, 820 pairs of night-vision goggles and more.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, flies 10 unarmed Predator drones along the border, but the bill requires nonstop airborne surveillance: Internal documents show that would require enlarging the fleet to 24 drones.

The expansion will significantly benefit a California company. The border agency recently signed a $128 million contract with General Atomics, based in Poway, to provide operations and maintenance for its 10 Predators. The same contract taps the company to sell and service 14 additional drones if Congress approves the funding. The expected purchase cost is $252 million.

General Atomics, which spent $2.5 million lobbying Congress last year and $720,000 in the first quarter this year, did not return requests for comment.

The bill also requires the purchase of 15 Black Hawk helicopters from Connecticut-based Sikorsky Aircraft, along with six Vader radars, a drone-mounted radar system developed by Virginia-based Northrop Grumman to detect insurgents planting bombs in Afghanistan. Each Vader costs $9.3 million.

The border crackdown includes more than $50 million to increase prosecutions of border crossers in Arizona, and another $50 million to reimburse other border states. Most immigration violators are sent to jails and detention facilities owned or run by private companies under contracts with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and the Marshals Service. Their role is likely to grow substantially.

In Arizona, the immigration-detention business is dominated by Corrections Corp. of America. The Tennessee-based company was paid $750 million under federal contracts last year, and spent more than $1 million to lobby officials in Washington, records show.

Biometric companies have also lobbied in favor of the bill — and will profit if it passes.

Immigration agents check fingerprints to screen foreigners coming into the country, but no one checks travelers’ fingerprints when they leave. Other biometric systems could include iris scans or facial-recognition software.

Proponents say such scans would help identify those who overstayed their visas and remain in the country illegally. Critics say it might deter such people from leaving and facing possible prosecution. Airline executives say the extra screening would delay flights and inconvenience foreign visitors.

Senior Homeland Security officials say reconfiguring airports with fingerprint stations and installing a computerized system isn’t worth the money since the current system — checking passport information and passenger lists — is more than 90 percent accurate and can be improved.

“It’s very hard to justify the expenditure of $7 billion,” said a senior Homeland Security official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A spokesman for Accenture, a Virginia-based company that has received $508 million in contracts since 2004 for the system used to fingerprint arriving foreign visitors, posted a paper on its website arguing that a biometric exit system is necessary for immigration reform.

“So the question isn’t whether to implement an exit program. It’s how. Accenture can help,” it reads.

In the end, it wasn’t a hard sell. Senators rejected a proposal to require fingerprinting at all airports and seaports, but approved an amendment by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to install the system within two years at the nation’s 10 busiest airports for international travel, and later expand it across the country.

The Tucson area, for years the busiest crossing point for illegal immigrants, has served as the testing ground for the federal government’s high-technology border effort, although even senior Homeland Security officials acknowledge it got off to a poor start.

Boeing was selected in 2006, when the last major push by Congress to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws was under way, to create a “virtual fence” that would use radar and video systems to identify and track incursions, information that would be beamed to regional command centers and border agents in the field.

But the ground radar system at first kept shutting down because of faulty circuit breakers, audits found, while the towers installed for the mounting of radar and advanced long-range cameras swayed too much in the desert winds. Even rainstorms snarled things, creating countless false alerts.

“It should have been pretty simple,” Mark Borkowski, the head of acquisitions for Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, said in a recent speech of the troubled $850 million project. “We weren’t frankly smart enough.”

But the Boeing system, along with the surge in Border Patrol agents, has resulted in a major drop in attempted illegal crossings, said Cmdr. Jeffrey Self of the Border Patrol, who oversees the Tucson region, with apprehensions dropping 80 percent since their peak in 2000, considered a sign of a drop in overall traffic.

Includes material from The Washington Post and The New York Times.