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Grijalva urges 'transparency' from CBP after surveillance blimp is lofted over Nogales

Grijalva urges 'transparency' from CBP after surveillance blimp is lofted over Nogales

  • Jonathan Clark/Nogales International

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva pushed for "transparency and oversight" from Homeland Security officials after U.S. Customs and Border Protection lofted a new surveillance blimp near Nogales last week, prompting an outcry from county and city officials.

Last week, CBP blindsided residents in the border city setting up the tethered observation blimp without notice to city or county officials. After the Nogales International began asking questions about the new surveillance platform, CBP published a press release that said it had installed a "22-Meter Persistent Ground Surveillance System Aerostat in Nogales, Arizona."

CBP said the installation began on Monday, June 20 about one mile north of the U.S.-Mexico border on a hill east of Nogales.

"The aerostat will be operational and manned by Border Patrol Agents 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide continuous aerial surveillance of the border," an agency spokesman wrote, adding that the helium-filled balloon is tethered to a 15,000-pound mooring platform. The blimp will fly up to 3,000 feet above the ground, giving a suite of day and night cameras the ability to engage in "persistent, low-altitude surveillance."

"Flying at this altitude allows Border Patrol Agents to maintain visual awareness of border activity in the United States for longer periods of time," the spokesman wrote. The aerostat joins a flock of fixed towers and mobile systems focused on Arizona's border, along with drones and other aircraft, as well as cameras mounted on poles.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway called the aerostat "blatant spying in our community."

In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, Grijalva said he was concerned about the deployment of the 22-meter Persistent Ground Surveillance System Aerostat blimp over the city of Nogales, Arizona."

"According to reports this deployment came without notice or consultation with local city officials or other local community stakeholders," said Grijalva, adding it is "critical that CBP meaningfully engage with community members impacted by border surveillance technologies."

"CBP’s only statement on the deployment failed to address residents’ well-founded concerns over invasion of privacy," Grijalva complained. He pushed CBP to hold public forums to "ensure" nearby residents, local governments, tribal leaders, as well as migrant rights and civil rights experts understand how Border Patrol will use the new aerostats, and "express their concerns."

Aerostats have been used as radar platforms along the U.S. border for decades. Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. deployed them to counter illegal drug trafficking. More recently, CBP  began operating Tethered Aerostat Radar System, or TARS which "spend their service lives hovering over a fixed location on the southern edge of the border."

In the agency's own magazine, Frontline, Richard Booth, a spokesman for CBP’s Office of Air and Marine, likened the TARS balloons to a "low-flying satellite system, but cheaper to launch and operate. The agency has eight TARS blimps, including two in Arizona—one near Yuma and the other based at Ft. Huachuca.

While the original systems were designed to spot and track aircraft, the new aerostats are smaller and work to surveil the ground. A CBP spokesman said U.S. Border Patrol has managed blimps like the one in Nogales throughout the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, adding that a recent agreement with the Defense Department has allowed BP to expand the number of aerostats across the southwest border.

There are currently 17 stationed along the U.S.-Mexico border, he said, but this is the first of the new aerostats in the Tucson Sector—which covers the Arizona-Mexico border from Yuma County to New Mexico. A second aerostat will likely be added to the Tucson Sector near Sasabe, Arizona later this year, he wrote.

'Smart' technology may fail to deliver

In his letter, Grijalva criticized the use of "smart border" technology.

"Border surveillance technologies have been used to track residents of border regions and impede their rights while being justified as 'humane' mechanisms for immigration enforcement," Grijalva said. He also noted a relationship between the expansion of border surveillance technologies to an increase in the number of people who have died crossing the border referring to an opinion piece written by three Tucson-based academics.

In their op-ed—published by The Hill in Feb. 2019—Geoffrey Alan Boyce, Ph.D., the academic director of the Tucson-based Earlham College Border Studies Program, along with Samuel N. Chambers, Ph.D., a research associate at the University of Arizona's School of Geography and Development, and Sarah Launius, Ph.D., an independent geography and development researcher, argued previous attempts to use "high-tech" border technology "failed to deliver on their operational objectives," and "instead of preventing unauthorized crossing, the surveillance network simply shifted migration routes into much more difficult and remote terrain."

In a peer-reviewed article, the three researchers evaluated the history of persistent surveillance systems, including the ill-fated $3.7 billion SBINet, and found evidence border surveillance and enforcement infrastructure funnels people into the harshest parts of the Sonoran desert.

"Based on these findings there is a need to reconsider the premise that surveillance technology and infrastructure can provide a 'humane' alternative to Trump’s border wall," the researchers wrote. "Instead, we’d like to see a shift in U.S. border policy that genuinely prioritizes the protection of human life, regardless of a person’s citizenship or immigration status," the trio wrote.

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