Calls for increased militarization of the border come from Texas members of the ‘Drone Caucus’
The increased violence in Mexico fueled by the war between drug cartels and the Mexican government has also fueled political rhetoric on the American side, calling for the militarization of the countries’ border.
Any discussion of United States immigration policy usually begins with talk of “enforcement first,” and this has included proposals for increased use of military technology and equipment along the 1,969 miles of border. The push for the increased militarization of the border has been led by members of Congress who advocate for the defense contractors that benefit from the militarization of the border.
The voices calling for increased border security have come from the floor of the Congress as well as state capitols in the South. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been a loud critic of the Obama Administration’s policy toward border security and a proponent of increased militarization of the border. In February 2009 Perry requested 1,000 military personnel and aviation assets to secure the border, and in March of 2010 he directed two Texas National Guard helicopters to the border.
While the discussion of security along the border often centers around an increase of “boots on the ground” in the form of more Border Patrol agents or even members of the National Guard, the eye in the sky is what some advocates say will increase security along the border. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, have been flown along the border since as early as 2004 when the Border Patrol reportedly tested an Israeli made Hermes drone.
Since 2004 the Border Patrol has added several Predator-B drones, manufactured by the California-based General Atomics Aeronautical System, to its fleet of more than 300 aircraft. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano released a statement in 2010 that the agency was considering expanding drone use along the Texas-Mexico border. DHS Spokesman Matthew Chandler said that “before border security mission can commence, DHS must secure the infrastructure.”
Texas congressional leaders have been a loud voice for increased use of drones along the border. In April 2010 during a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. John Cornyn pressed Napolitano on increased use of drones in Texas. Cornyn went so far as to place a hold on Michael Huerta’s nomination by President Obama to deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration until DHS deployed a second drone to Texas. DHS eventually approved the deployment of another drone in June 2011, and it arrived in Corpus Christi in October.
In April 2011 three Texans on the House Homeland Security Committee requested that the Obama administration increase the number of drones in Texas. Two of those calling for an increase, Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas-District 28) and Republican Rep. Michael T. McCaul (Texas-D 10), are members of a bipartisan group of lawmakers that advocate for the use of UAVs.
The U.S. House Unmanned Systems Caucus, otherwise known as the “Drone Caucus,” includes 50 House members from both parties. According to the group’s website, its mission is “to educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems; actively support further development and acquisition of more systems, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on unmanned system use and safety.”
While the Drone Caucus boasts membership from throughout the country, California and Texas have a combined 17 members. Rep. Cuellar co-chairs the caucus along with Republican Buck McKeon (Calif.- D 25). Members from the Texas delegation include Reps. McCaul, Mike Conaway (Texas-D 11), Gene Green (Texas- D 29), Pete Olson (Texas-D 22), and Silvestre Reyes (Texas-D 16).
The caucus works closely with the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). The AUVSI membership includes drone manufacturers General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Northrop Grumman as “Diamond” members and Lockheed Martin and Boeing as “Platinum” members. Cuellar and McKeon are both scheduled to speak at the AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems Program Review on Feb. 8 and 9, along with influential members of the military and the defense industry.
In April 2011 Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold said that “UAVs provide a vital force multiplier effect in securing our borders as Mexican drug cartels grow bolder by the day in their operations on both sides of the border.” However, the cost of drones compared to their actual benefits is not as clear cut.
According to a report by the Government Accounting Office on high-tech border-security programs, drones have “significant infrastructure costs with the highest cost risk.” The DHS has reportedly spent $242 million in drone contracts with General Atomics, the parent company of General Atomics Aeronautical System. Since they began flying along the border, drones have flown more than 11,500 hours, and DHS officials have claimed that they have led to seizures of about 46,000 pounds of drugs and the detention of about 7,500 people. However, according to Associated Press reports, in 2010 alone a record 254,000 pounds of cocaine were seized along with 3.6 million pounds of marijuana, and 463,000 people were detained, so the drones have made a relatively small contribution to border enforcement overall.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons