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Border security still big biz despite financial problems, legislative flameouts

Painted olive-drab, the device held by Todd Degidio looked like an oversized game controller, complete with it’s own video screen and a riot of special knobs and buttons. The controller was linked to a gyro-stabilized mount manufactured by Paradigm SRP called the Talon.

On the mount was a rifle meant for precision shooting and Degidio sighted the weapon on a distant photograph of trees. On the video screen, the rifle’s aim point remained steady even as the complex mount is heaved back and forth, replicating what might happen if the device was mounted on a boat, truck, or helicopter. 

Paradigm was one of more than 115 companies at the Border Security Expo at the Phoenix Convention Center last week, a trade show designed to give surveillance companies and arms manufacturers an opportunity to hobnob with officials tasked with securing the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Hosted by Eagle Eye Expositions, which also runs the Border News Network, the event was themed around the idea of "Countering Transnational Organized Crime: An Important Component of Counter-Terrorism Strategy." 

The two-day expo was attended by senior officials from ten federal agencies and organizations, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well law enforcement officials from Texas.

On its ninth year, the Expo came at a thorny period for border security. 

In January, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, as well as Arizona's freshman Rep. Martha McSally pushed a border security bill that would require federal officials to attain “operational control” of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The bill was severely criticized by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. who called the bill "unworkable," and it failed to pass through the House while a companion bill collapsed in the Senate. 

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At the same time, Homeland Security’s funding was delayed by an internecine fight between Republicans and Democrats over President Barack Obama’s November announcement of two deferred action programs, which would allow some unauthorized immigrants to remain in the country. Funded by a series of continuing resolutions for months, Homeland Security began preparing to furlough 15 percent of its workforce before Congress finally passed a funding bill on March 3, several days after a previous deadline. 

Meanwhile, federal officials struggle to manage resources along the border. 

In December, Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General criticized the drone program operated by CBP. In the report, auditors found that after eight years, the program which flies Predator drones had failed to achieve results, flying for only about 20 percent of the time expected. Government auditors estimated that each Predator sortie cost more than $12,000. 

Last week, the Inspector General for ICE complained that the agency could have saved up to $41.1 million by reorganizing the flights of immigrants in custody.

Billions and billions

Despite this turbulence and the memory of the ill-fated Secure Border Initiative, a Boeing-run program canceled in 2011 after burning through more than $1 billion in an attempt to cover a 53-mile stretch of the Arizona desert, the business in border control and biometrics remains lucrative. 

Analysis from Frost & Sullivan estimated that the market for border control technology was worth around $16.3 billion in 2012, but is expected to grow to $32.5 billion by 2021. 

In the United States, Homeland Security will spend around $373.5 million in infrastructure and technology along the U.S. border in the fiscal year of 2015 alone. An earlier Senate bill would have added another $40 billion over 10 years to DHS spending. 

This includes $46 million on sites for 70 remote surveillance towers, $44 million for another 39 Mobile Video Surveillance Systems — trucks topped with cameras and radar systems — $43.7 million for two surveillance airplanes, and $11 million for development of an intelligence strategy using geographic information. This also includes what the agency calls a Southwest Border Tracking System, which will help the agency identify patterns and act accordingly. 

Elbit Systems of America, the Texas-based subsidiary of an Israeli defense company, has managed to hook into this spending. 

Last year, the company beat out several American competitors for a $145 million contract to design and build the Integrated Fixed Tower system, a series of towers capped with sensors that replicates parts of the failed "virtual fence" that would have been created by SBI program. 

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While Homeland Security looks for companies to build equipment specifically for the department, it also absorbs tech used overseas by the Department of Defense. This includes at least $60 million in equipment, including Aerostat blimps once used for surveillance in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

"In some cases, we’ve actually accepted ownership of these things from DOD," said Mark Borkowski, assistant technology commissioner for the Customs and Border Protection agency.  "We’ve got them sitting, waiting to be deployed when we can afford to maintain them."

Eventually, he said, his agency planned to replace both the Defense Department balloons and an older system deployed at Ft. Huachuca called the Tethered Aerostat Radar System or TARS, which is being held together by "shoestring and bailing wire." However, this means the creation of a new program to catch small planes and ultra-lights used to smuggle drugs into the U.S. 

The conference presented an opportunity to engage in market research and work with companies to define and build the technology that would become part of Homeland Security, Borkowski said. 

"We’ve found situations where we went out and got technologies that we thought were useful on the border, then the people who produced those have gone out and created markets for state and local law enforcement," he said. 

"High tech isn’t always the answer," he said, however, the agency was in the midst of "figure out how to act more like a single department" and understanding what technology needed by all departments.

"Biometrics is one of them," the CBP official said said. 

In the large carpeted convention hall, a few of the companies were doing just that. 

By the MorphoTrak booth, a widescreen television showed how the company's software was rapidly attempting to match the faces of convention-goers against a database of faces. Josh Smolenak showed off two parts of their system, one a scanner that that reads fingerprints with a hand-wave through the device, and an app that runs on smartphones that allowed Smolenak to take a photo and quickly compare it to the MorphoTrak database. 

"It’s really quick," he said. "Officers can take a picture and quickly know who they’re dealing with."

Several other companies, including Safran and Congnitec were selling similar systems. There was also a vendor selling fake rocks and cactuses, several drone manufacturers including ARA Force, which made the Pointman Tactical Robot currently used by Border Patrol to survey tunnels beneath the streets of Nogales, Ariz. Two gun manufacturers, Glock and H&K, presented their wares, along with a mixture of vehicle specialists, radio companies, and clothing companies. 

Utility is trying to solve another law enforcement problem. 

Body Worn: The Ultimate Witness attempts to solve several problems when police officers are required to wear body cameras by wrapping a smartphone running Android in a vest complete with its own integral lens. The camera begins taking video when the phone feels motion and the video is transmitted in real time to headquarters, complete with GPS locations. This keeps officers from intentionally disabling the camera, and also ensures that officers can’t lose the device while "protecting the chain of evidence," said Brian Lewis, a sales manager with the company. 

Several agencies have considered the device said Lewis, including the Bexar County Sheriff Department from Texas, who were already using cellular transmitters made by the company. 

Border Patrol has also begun testing the use of body cameras in the New Mexico and Texas in response to repeated complaints that agents routinely abuse people in their custody and that agents have intentionally killed Mexicans on both sides of the border. 

The political fight over border security comes at a time when the budget for CBP and ICE has roughly doubled since 2003, and the number of agents working the border has exploded from nearly 11,000 in 2004 to almost 21,000 in 2014.

Additionally, from 2000 to 2010, the agency has built 625 miles of border fencing. 

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On Friday, Johnson highlighted some of the agency’s successes noting that apprehensions continue to decline, including the numbers of unaccompanied children. During the summer of 2014, the agency found itself overwhelmed by large numbers of unaccompanied minors coming through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. However, the number of children coming across the border has declined 45 percent, Johnson said. Apprehensions of whole families, which also exploded last year, are also declining around 30 percent. 

Meanwhile, the construction of "tactical infrastructure" continues to push unauthorized immigrants into the deserts beyond the edges of border towns, increasing the likelihood that migrants may die of thirst and exposure while simultaneously pushing them into the hands of indifferent human smugglers. 

In 2005, Border Patrol agents recorded the deaths of 492 immigrants in the United States.  While that number has declined to 307 in 2014, where people have died has also shifted. In the Rio Grande Sector, the number of bodies discovered by agents has more than doubled since 2005. 

Former CBP Commissioner David Aguilar argued that federal efforts have changed the southern U.S. border.  

"The border today is transformed,” Aguilar said. "The entirety of the southern border is safer than the area where I live, Washington, D.C."

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Todd Degidio with Paradigm SRP demonstrates the remote for a gyroscopic mount meant to hold a sniper's rifle and allow a soldier to accurately fire the weapon while on a boat, moving truck, or helicopter.