Supplementing border patrol surveillance efforts, drones now monitor almost half of the U.S.-Mexico southern border, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. The unmanned Predator B drones are being used to help control vast areas of the southern border where it is difficult to set up traditional “boots on the ground” surveillance tactics like border patrol agents and fixed camera towers.
The government has operated about 10,000 drone flights since the program began in March 2013, for “change detection” missions where drones are used to “sweep remote mountains, canyons and rivers with a high-resolution video camera and return within three days for another video in the same spot.” The images are then overlaid to see changes like “the tracks of a farmer or cows, perhaps those of immigrants who entered the country illegally or a drug-laden Hummer,” unnamed officials with direct knowledge of the operation told the AP. Nearly 92 percent of images do not show that there were changes in the terrain, so those areas would not need agents and fences, according to Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher. But about two percent “offer evidence of illegal crossings from Mexico, which typically results in ground sensors being planted for closer monitoring.” Drones will also be deployed to the northern border shared with Canada.
The move comes at a time when some lawmakers have criticized the Obama administration for focusing not on border security, but rather on an impending executive action that could suspend the deportation of some undocumented immigrants. Yet, the drones are one of a number of ways in which the administration has poured more resources than ever into border security. Federal spending on immigration enforcement exceeded $18 billion, more than the government spends on every other federal law enforcement agency combined. Over the past 14 years, immigration officials have doubled the number of border agents to 21,000 and added nearly 700 miles of border fencing, the White House indicated. And border agents run checkpoints as far away as 100 miles of any U.S. “external boundary.” One report found that the “net undocumented migration from Mexico is at or down to zero,” that border agents patrol “every single mile of the border,” and that there are more “boots on the ground” than ever before. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has also steadily ramped up its deportation efforts of immigrants within the United States, with the Obama administration surpassing its two millionth deportation earlier this year.
This post has been corrected to clarify that there have been 10,000 drone flights, not 10,000 drones, since March 2013.