Huge border costs yielding mixed results
$90 billion in the last 10 years: After 9/11, border spending tripled; there have been fewer illegal immigrants, but little impact on terrorism and no stoppage in the drug supply.
The Associated Press
HIDALGO, Texas — Perched 20 feet above a South Texas cabbage field in a telephone-booth-size capsule, a National Guardsman passes a moonlit Sunday night with a gun strapped to his hip, peering through heat-detector lenses into an adjacent orange grove.
Deployment of 1,200 National Guard soldiers for one year: $110 million.
This same night, farther west on the border, a milelong train groans to a stop halfway across a Rio Grande bridge.
In a nightly ritual, a Customs and Border Protection agent unlocks a gate, a railroad policeman slides the doors open, and they both wave flashlight beams under, over and in between the loads before they pass through an X-ray machine searching for people or drugs.
One rail-cargo X-ray screening machine: $1.75 million.
In southern Arizona, a screener examining tractor-trailer loads of charcoal spots something odd and asks for a closer look. Drug-sniffing dogs bark. He finds 8,000 pounds of baled marijuana in several trucks.
Customs and Border Protection officer average annual salary: $75,000. Drug-sniffing dog: $4,500.
As Congress debates border funding and as governors demand more assistance, The Associated Press has investigated what taxpayers spend securing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The price tag, until now, has not been public. But a tally based on White House budgets, reports obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and congressional transcripts totals $90 billion in 10 years.
For taxpayers footing the bill, the returns have been mixed: fewer illegal immigrants but little impact on terrorism and no stoppage of the drug supply.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists didn't come from Mexico, but the attacks led politicians to re-examine border security. Ten days later, President Bush announced a new Department of Homeland Security, with tasks including the security of the nation's southern border.
During the next 10 years, annual border spending tripled as the U.S. built an unprecedented network along the 1,900-mile border with Mexico: 165 truck and train X-ray machines; 650 miles of heavy-duty fencing and sheer concrete walls; twice as many law-enforcement officers along the entire stretch, and a small fleet of Predator drones. Also, remote surveillance cameras, thermal-imaging devices and partially buried ground sensors that sound an alarm at headquarters if someone steps on one in the desert.
Early concerns that terrorists could sneak weapons into the U.S. from Mexico were overshadowed by worries about violent drug cartels slaughtering people across the Rio Grande. As the U.S. economy faltered, preventing illegal immigrants from sneaking north for jobs became the focus.
"Border security is no longer just about responding to 9/11. It became very much a part of the immigration debate," said Jena Baker McNeill, homeland-security policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Indeed, stopping immigrants at the border has become a bargaining tool for the past two administrations with Congress: fences and guards in exchange for changing immigration laws, she said.
The buildup has reduced illegal immigration. Ten years ago, border agents caught 1.6 million illegal immigrants in one year. Last year they caught 463,000. The drop is attributed, in part, to the U.S. recession, which decreased jobs here, but it's also an indication, according to federal officials, that fewer people are attempting to illegally cross the border.
But the spending has not stopped the flow of illegal drugs. Last year, border guards seized a record 254,000 pounds of cocaine, 3.6 million pounds of marijuana, and 4,200 pounds of heroin. In response, Mexico's cartel bosses sent more.
An estimated 660,000 pounds of cocaine, 44,000 pounds of heroin and 220,000 pounds of methamphetamine are on American streets in a given year, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. A fraction of that is seized at the border, a small operating cost for Mexico's drug lords, who will reap an estimated $25 billion this year from their U.S. sales.
For 2012, the Obama administration's record-high budget for border-security proposes an additional $242 million to pay for high-tech watchtowers and movable screeners along the border, $229 million to raise border agents' pay, and $184 million to identify and deport criminal illegal immigrants in state prisons and local jails. That's on top of about $14 billion to support the ongoing infrastructure.
In January, the Obama administration dumped SBInet, an attempt to install a high-tech "virtual" border fence project that cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion but did little to improve security.
"At some point we got the misconception that border security means securing the border," said Andrew Selee, director of the D.C.-based Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a nonpartisan think tank. "It's actually about something much more comprehensive, from reducing drug use to reforming immigration laws, all the while facilitating legitimate trade."
It's the U.S.-Canada frontier — which taxpayers spent $2.9 billion securing last year — that is "the more significant threat" when it comes to terrorism, Customs and Border Patrol head Alan Bersin told senators at a recent hearing.
Bersin said this is because the Canadian government won't use the FBI's no-fly terrorist watch list. (Canada has its own.)
About 6,000 people were arrested — for all reasons, not just for being on the no-fly lists — at the U.S.-Canada border last year, compared to 445,000 arrests at the Mexico border.
Gil Kerlikowske, the departing director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy and a former Seattle police chief, said he doesn't think the country can stop drugs from crossing its borders, and advocates a holistic approach that includes border security as well as prevention and treatment programs to lessen drug demand.
"I don't think we have a real choice but to make sure that we're putting the appropriate amount of money and technology into the border," Kerlikowske said. "But I also think, when it comes to the drug issue, that we need to be really focused on not just thinking about it from an enforcement end only."
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