The U.S. Customs and Border Protection has received more than $743 million in funding since 2017 for upgrades in border technology.
(Video by Payton Muse/Cronkite News)
NOGALES – U.S. Customs and Border Protection is lagging in updated technology and staff needed to secure the 1,954-mile Southwest border with Mexico, according to a February inspector general’s audit by the Department of Homeland Security.
Customs and Border Protection has acquired just 28% of the new technology planned for border detections, despite receiving $743 million for such upgrades since 2017. The audit said CBP lacks tools, technologies and manpower, as well as a reliable way to assess the effectiveness of the equipment in use.
“Shifting priorities, construction delays, a lack of available technology solutions, and funding constraints hindered CBP’s planned deployments,” the audit said. “Consequently, most Southwest Border Patrol sectors still rely predominantly on obsolete systems and infrastructure with limited capabilities.”
But the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector of Arizona, one of the busiest for apprehending undocumented migrants and contraband, seems to be in better shape than many of the other stations.
The February audit shows the 262-mile Tucson Sector has deployed 84 of 97 planned tower and surveillance upgrades since 2014, while Big Bend, Del Rio, and El Paso sections have completed none. This leaves border sectors vulnerable to criminal activities, the report said.
Kevin Hecht, a CBP agent in Nogales, said his station is the busiest in the Tucson Sector, which runs from the New Mexico-Arizona border to the Yuma County line, and operates well with the equipment it has. That includes integrated towers that detect people in rural areas with sensors, remote video surveillance and mobile surveillance systems, such as laser illuminators to see during the night.
“So we are a little bit more advanced since we were the first to receive all this, and then we get the updates based on those advancements,” Hecht said. “We’re not based on whatever report you read. I think we’re a little bit beyond that because we were one of the first stations to receive the newer technologies.”
Since fiscal 2017, CBP has received nearly $7 billion in appropriations for procurements, construction, and improvements along the Southern border, the vast majority for border wall construction.
The Department of Home Security called the use of technology “an invaluable force multiplier” for keeping the border secure.
The February audit also said CBP lacks technology for detecting tunnels and tunneling. And vacant positions in the agency make it difficult to fully use surveillance technology, as well as maintain IT systems and infrastructure. The report shows 1,324 hiring vacancies along the Southwest border, including 167 vacancies out of 3,658 assigned agents for the Tucson Sector.
“Overall, these deficiencies have limited CBP’s ability to detect and prevent the illegal entry of noncitizens who may pose threats to national security,” the audit said. “Deploying adequate technologies is essential for CBP to ensure complete operational control of the southern border.”
Numerous audit reports during the past few years have highlighted concerns with CBP’s ability to make sure that its information technology is supporting border missions, the audit said.
A September 2020 audit said the CBP lacks a comprehensive strategy for acquiring and assessing what it calls “non-intrusive inspection” technology, which includes large-scale X-ray and gamma ray imaging systems, and portable and handheld technologies that are used to inspect cars, buses, trucks, sea containers and rail cars.
The audit said the purchase and oversight for this crucial equipment were fragmented, leading to a lack in test plans for the equipment and the staff necessary to operate it. Homeland Security and CBP disagreed that their plan was fragmented.
The February audit recommended that CBP update its previous technology plan, form a process to measure the technology’s effectiveness and communicate with the Homeland Security office to ensure all technology is in compliance with requirements.
Assistant inspector general Kristen Bernard said the CBP responded to the February report with a new plan, which is to assess capability needs, cost and technologies annually.
CBP this fall gave Cronkite News a tour of its equipment and technology in Tucson and Nogales. Hecht said agents in his sector are confident the current technology – including some improvised systems not originally designed for border protection – does the job.
Unconventional technology includes robots controlled by agents to explore the many tunnels beneath the border for drugs and other contraband. The robots were originally designed to inspect vehicles for bombs and other devices.
“Anytime we can send a robot in a tunnel instead of an agent, that’s ideal, especially when it’s sewage and dirt and nasty,” Hecht said.
In Nogales, there’s a control room where each agent is assigned a monitor to track and report from.
“We have those cameras there monitoring to see if there’s any type of incursion because years back, we didn’t have that technology in there,” CBP Agent Alan Regalado said.
Regalado explains that technology helps agents respond to activity in the desert and alongside the border “in a timely manner.”
The Sonoran Desert is a dangerous place, with wildlife, forbidding terrain and unbearable temperatures, but many migrants ignore those risks and attempt to cross the border miles away from ports of entry. Hundreds die there each year.
CBP also uses small drones to survey the border, as well as support search and rescue operations. Tucson Sector officials told auditors they have been used to search for undocumented migrants who get lost in the vast desert.
“When there’s a medical emergency, immgiration is the last thing in our head. What we’re trying to do is save that person,” said CBP Agent Jesus Vasavilbaso, adding that more than 230 agents also are certified emergency medical technicians.
Technology is a big part of apprehensions and rescues of migrants.
“Both the smugglers and migrants will wear camouflage from head to toe. They’ll wear carpet on the bottom of their shoes, so you can’t see their footprints,” said Keith Kincannon, a supervisory air and marine agent for the CBP.
Alexander Zamora, another air and marine supervisor, said planes and helicopters give agents “this eye in the sky” when activity is detected in the desert.
“Basically,” Kincannon said, “when you’re looking at a natural landscape, you’re just looking for something that looks out of place. You know, right angles or colors that you wouldn’t see out in a natural environment. It takes a lot of practice to get good at it, even with all this technology.”
The Border Patrol and the Tucson air and marine branch work closely together to target illegal activity and seize or arrest, depending on the situation. Communication devices are the greatest help to them while being miles away from each other.
“We’re just constantly flying to the desert, able to see all this activity, lock in the coordinates and come back to it as we have agents going to support that particular activity in that area,” Zamora said.
Bernard said technology “notifies the real time of illegal crossings or any activities along the border, and that goes a long way for tactical response.”
CBP hasn’t said how much of the $743 million was allocated to the Tucson Sector.
Bernard says CBP will continue to revise its technology needs, available funds, and priorities for the southern border each year.