Getting Proactive

It’s true what they say: The best offense is a good defense. And when it comes to border security, I couldn’t agree more.

Having grown up in southern New Mexico -- and, at times, lived within 20 miles of the Mexican border -- this type of homeland security is close to my heart. I remember illegal immigrants stopping at my childhood home, in the remote desert, to ask for water. As a teenager, I went with my father to Palomas, Mexico, to shop the market. In college, my friends and I would walk across the bridge between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, to visit the restaurants and clubs.

But today, Mexico’s violent drug war has helped push illegal immigration out of control. And Americans are discouraged from visiting Palomas and Juarez altogether.

However, a range of new border security initiatives is slowly helping to turn the tide -- and may be the answer we’ve been waiting for to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, drugs and contraband from Mexico.

A Bolstered Defense
The Obama administration has implemented an impressive amount of new border security legislation as part of the 2009 Southwest Border Initiative. Since last year, the Department of Homeland Security has doubled the number of personnel assigned to border enforcement security task forces; tripled the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers working along the U.S.-Mexico border; quadrupled deployments of border liaison officers; and begun screening 100 percent of southbound rail shipments for illegal weapons, drugs and cash.

President Obama also has authorized the deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops to the border to provide intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, and immediate support to counternarcotics enforcement while Customs and Border Protection recruits and trains additional officers and agents to serve on the border.

In fact, as of this year the Border Patrol is better staffed than at any time in its 86-year history, according to Customs and Border Protection. The number of agents has more than doubled in the last six years, from approximately 10,000 in 2004 to more than 20,000 today. This includes more personnel in Arizona than ever before, which is bound to help the state that sees more illegal immigration than any other.

The administration also has dedicated $600 million in new funding to enhance security technology at the border; share information and support with state, local, and tribal law enforcement; and increase federal law enforcement activities at the border. That effort equals even more agents, investigators and prosecutors to target networks trafficking in people, drugs, illegal weapons and money. As someone with friends in the Border Patrol in both New Mexico and Arizona, I’m glad to hear it.

The High-tech Approach
As of Sept. 1, DHS also began using three Predator Unmanned Aerial Systems to cover the 2,000-milelong southwest border from California to the Gulf of Mexico. (They’ve been in use at the northern border since January 2009.) The aircraft provide critical aerial surveillance assistance to personnel on the ground.

According to the Customs and Border Protection website, the Predator UASs will be especially helpful in areas that are remote, high-risk or otherwise dif ficult to access -- which describes much of the southwest border. Obviously, any technology that reduces the risk to Customs or Border Patrol agents is a step in the right direction.

Each Predator is remotely piloted, in real time, by Federal Aviation Administration-certified law enforcement personnel who are located in state-of-theart ground control stations. It’s capable of flying up to 50,000 feet high at 407 kilometers per hour, with a maximum endurance of 20 operational hours.

In addition to the Predator program, DHS has deployed additional Z-Backscatter Van Units, Mobile Surveillance Systems, Remote Video Surveillance Systems, thermal imaging systems, radiation portal monitors and license plate readers to the southwest border over the past 18 months. Biometrics have even started to come into play: The Obama administration has expanded the Secure Communities initiative -- which uses biometric information to identify criminal illegal aliens in state prisons and local jails to expedite removal proceedings.

Turning the Tide
According to DHS, illegal border crossings already have been reduced. Apprehensions of illegal aliens decreased from 723,825 in 2008 to 556,041 in 2009, a 23 percent reduction, thanks in part to increased security along the southwest border.

Clearly, the Southwest Border Initiative is a step in the right direction. I’m especially encouraged by the increased use of technology to supplement the difficult work of Border Patrol agents. Now, more than ever, the challenge to protect the southern border is great. And they’ll need all the help they can get.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Security Today.

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