by Christie Thompson, ProPublica
Federal spending on border security is at an all-time high — and it would get even higher under the Gang of Eight’s new plan. The Senate immigration proposal, released last week, would allocate $4.5 billion in the next five years to tighten control of U.S. borders.
The U.S. spent nearly $18 billion on immigration enforcement agencies last fiscal year, more than all other law enforcement agencies combined.
Where would another $4.5 billion go? Here’s a closer look at what is being proposed, and how the government has spent (and often wasted) border money in recent years.
More border agents
The proposal calls for an additional 3,500 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. In FY 2012, the department employed 21,790 officers, up 10 percent from 2008. The bill would also add an unspecified number of border patrol agents, whose ranks have skyrocketed from just over 4,000 in 1993 to more than 21,000 today.
A 2011 investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Los Angeles Times showed how hurried hiring by the border agency affected screening standards and led to an increase in corruption. From 2006 to 2011, the number of investigations of customs employees charged with fraud more than tripled. Since 2004, 147 agency employees have been charged with or convicted of corruption-related offenses.
The bill requires buying as many “unmanned aerial systems” (also known as drones) as needed to have 24/7 surveillance of the southwest border. The U.S. has already purchased 10 border drones, which cost $18 million a iece and roughly $3,000 an hour to operate.
Many question whether the current border drones are worth the investment. According to a report from the Customs and Border Protection agency, drones led to 143 arrests and the recovery of 66,000 pounds of drugs in 2012. As news outlet Fronteras calculated, “that’s less than 3 percent of all drugs seized by border agents last year, and less than 0.04 percent of the 365,000 would-be illegal border crossers caught by agents.”
In May 2012, a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General found the U.S. didn’t have enough manpower or money to effectively operate the drones they already have. The department overshot its maintenance and operational budget by over $25 million. Drones had only flown for 30 percent of the time they were supposed to be in the air.
Another $1.5 billion would be allocated to expand the 651 miles of fencing along the southwest border. “I think what we would do if the bill passes,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a Senate hearing, “is go back and look at the type of fencing we have and say, ‘Do we want to make it triple what it is or taller?’—or something of that sort.”
More phones and radios
Remote areas along the southwest border can have spotty cell coverage, posing a risk to border guards in an emergency. A two-year grant would provide more funding for satellite phones and radios for border staff to contact 911, local police and federal agencies.
The bill doesn’t say anything about training guards to use the new devices. In November, we reported how DHS had spent $430 million on radios that only one surveyed employee knew how to use.