Immigration Reforms and Border Security Technologies
Published on: Jul 31, 2006

Rey Koslowski is associate professor of political science and public policy at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy and director of the Center for Policy Research Program on Border Control and Homeland Security at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He is the author of Migrants and Citizens: Demographic Change in the European States System (Cornell University Press, 2000); and editor of International Migration and the Globalization of Domestic Politics (Routledge, 2005).

The use of information technology for border security has been central to the many immigration reform proposals introduced in the U.S. Congress and the debate that has ensued.1 The Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (H.R.4437), passed by the House in December of 2005, and the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (S. 2611), passed by the Senate in May 2006, both have provisions requiring implementation of new technologies to support border control efforts at and between ports of entry, particularly along the U.S.-Mexican border. The newly established Secure Border Initiative (SBI) will deploy a combination of surveillance technologies, data analysis systems and dispatching systems to help stop illegal migration between ports of entry—systems that the Senate bill describes as a “virtual fence.” US-VISIT, an automated biometric entry-exit system, is becoming the main tool for screening travelers at the point of entry. US-VISIT was mandated by immigration and border security legislation passed before and after September 11, 2001, and Congress is now calling for an acceleration of full implementation and enhancement of its security features.

Full system deployment of both programs may have a significant effect on reducing illegal immigration and making it more difficult for terrorists to enter the U.S. Yet these systems currently cover only a fraction of the border and are required of a small percentage of those who pass through ports of entry. In many cases, they can be evaded with stolen or fraudulent travel documents. Given that those who want to elude these systems will exploit loopholes and gaps, the systems’ effectiveness would depend upon complete implementation of all systems along all borders and ports as well as requiring entry and exit data from all travelers. However, implementation beyond what has already been accomplished is not only economically very costly but often politically difficult as well.

The "Virtual Fence"

The use of surveillance technologies by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) goes back to the 1970s and 1980s when low-light video cameras and portable electronic intrusion-detection ground sensors were deployed at the border. In 1997, the INS developed the “Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System” (ISIS) which deployed motion, infrared, seismic and magnetic sensors; some 13,000 ground sensors were deployed by 2000. The seismic and infrared sensors can detect motion and heat within a 50-foot radius and the metal sensors have a 250-foot range. When combined with remotely controlled video cameras that have a five mile radius, border patrol agents can detect clandestine entries, train cameras on illegal migrants and smugglers, determine their numbers and whether they are carrying weapons and then dispatch the appropriate patrols.2 Nevertheless, in October 2005, the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System had been deployed along only 4% of the border, with 10,500 sensors operative.3 Many of the sensors have proved difficult to maintain in a variety of weather conditions and they do not have the ability to differentiate animals from humans. When patrols are on duty, false alerts triggered by animals divert manpower, and when the Border Patrol does not include a night shift, sensors can end up counting animal border-crossers along with illegal migrants, as was the case in certain sectors along the U.S.-Canadian border before September 11, 2001.

In August 2004, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) established the America’s Shield Initiative, which was to maintain and modernize ISIS and “integrate new, state of the market surveillance technologies.”4 Internal negative evaluations of the initiative by DHS information technology staff and external Congressional criticism eventually led the new Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, to announce an overhaul of the short-lived America’s Shield Initiative a year later arguing that DHS should not deploy “gadgets” along the border to detect illegal entrants but rather develop new technologies and strategies.5 At the same time, bills in Congress called for “a comprehensive plan for the systematic surveillance of the international land and maritime borders of the United States”6 and an Integrated and Automated Surveillance Program “to procure additional unmanned aerial vehicles, cameras, poles, sensors, satellites, radar coverage, and other technologies necessary to achieve operational control of the international borders of the United States and to establish a security perimeter known as a ‘virtual fence’ along such international borders to provide a barrier to illegal immigration.”7

The DHS replaced America’s Shield with the “Secure Border Initiative” (SBI), a comprehensive multi-year plan which, among other things, involves: “a comprehensive and systemic upgrading of the technology used in controlling the border, including increased manned aerial assets, expanded use of UAVs, and next-generation detection technology.”8 In support of the initiative, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) launched a solicitation for the Secure Border Initiative Network (or “SBInet”) contract, estimated at $2.5 billion. Normally, government agencies that outsource information system development will issue a set of requirements for the information systems they want and firms bid with proposals to develop and install systems that meet these requirements. In contrast, CBP held a SBInet “industry day” on January 25, 2006 for over 400 private sector participants where DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson took outsourcing a step further. “This is an unusual invitation. I want to make sure you have it clearly, that we’re asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business. We’re asking you. We’re inviting you to tell us how to run our organization.”9 After interested firms coalesced into teams, five teams headed by Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Ericsson and Northrop Grumman were invited to submit proposals from which the CBP will select a winner by the end of September 2006.