Journalism in the Public Interest

Billions Proposed for New Border Security. Where Would the Money Go?

The Senate’s immigration overhaul would allocate $4.5 billion in new border spending. We take a look at the current proposal, and how border money’s been spent (and wasted) in the past.

US Border Patrol agents patrol along the border fence between Arizona and Mexico. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Federal spending on border security is at an all-time high—and it would get even higher under the Gang of Eight’s new plan. The Senate immigration proposal, released last week, would allocate $4.5 billion in the next five years to tighten control of U.S. borders.

The U.S. spent nearly $18 billion dollars on immigration enforcement agencies last fiscal year, more than all other law enforcement agencies combined.

Where would another $4.5 billion go? Here’s a closer look at what is being proposed, and how the government has spent (and often wasted) border money in recent years.

More border agents

The proposal calls for an additional 3,500 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. In FY 2012, the department employed 21,790 officers, up 10 percent from 2008. The bill would also add an unspecified number of Border Patrol agents, whose ranks have skyrocketed from just over 4,000 in 1993 to more than 21,000 today.

A 2011 investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Los Angeles Times showed how hurried hiring by the border agency affected screening standards and led to an increase in corruption. From 2006 to 2011, the number of investigations of customs employees charged with fraud more than tripled. Since 2004, 147 agency employees have been charged with or convicted of corruption-related offenses.

More drones

The bill requires buying as many “unmanned aerial systems” (also known as drones) as needed to have 24/7 surveillance of the Southwest border. The U.S. has already purchased 10 border drones, which cost $18 million a piece and roughly $3,000 an hour to operate.

Many question whether the current border drones are worth the investment. According to a report from the Customs and Border Protection agency, drones led to 143 arrests and the recovery of 66,000 pounds of drugs in 2012. As news outlet Fronteras calculated, “that’s less than 3 percent of all drugs seized by border agents last year, and less than 0.04 percent of the 365,000 would-be illegal border crossers caught by agents.”

In May 2012, a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General found the U.S. didn’t have enough manpower or money to effectively operate the drones they already have. The department overshot its maintenance and operational budget by over $25 million. Drones had only flown for 30 percent of the time they were supposed to be in the air.

More fencing

Another $1.5 billion would be allocated to expand the 651 miles of fencing along the Southwest border. "I think what we would do if the bill passes," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a Senate hearing, "is go back and look at the type of fencing we have and say, ‘Do we want to make it triple what it is or taller?’ — or something of that sort."

More phones and radios

Remote areas along the Southwest border can have spotty cell coverage, posing a risk to border guards in an emergency. A two-year grant would provide more funding for satellite phones and radios for border staff to contact 911, local police and federal agencies.

The bill doesn’t say anything about training guards to use the new devices. In November, we reported how DHS had spent $430 million on radios that only one surveyed employee knew how to use.

More money for local cops

Some of the new DHS funds would go toward Operation Stonegarden, a $46.6 million FEMA program benefiting local law enforcement in border states. "The funds that we are getting from Stonegarden are a godsend," a county sheriff told the Arizona Daily Star in 2009. "I think we are able to provide a lot more security, a lot more visibility."

But critics say there’s little oversight of how the money has been spent. The Star’s review of Arizona police records showed grant money was funnelled toward expensive technology and overtime pay for cops doing unrelated tasks, like crowd control at city parades.

More accountability?

As Congress considers adding billions more to the border budget, lawmakers are left with a key question: is it working? Some critics on the left say the added funding may be unnecessary, as studies suggest net migration from Mexico is now below zero. Many on the right say there still aren’t enough hard metrics to judge whether Homeland Security is doing a better job of keeping undocumented immigrants out.

DHS has pointed to the drop in the number of apprehensions as a sign U.S. borders are stronger now than ever before. But critics say it’s a flawed way of judging whether the billions spent on border security are worth it. That number could mean fewer undocumented immigrants are attempting to cross the border, or that fewer are being arrested. The struggling U.S. economy also plays a big role in the overall drop in unauthorized immigration.

Under the new proposal, high-risk sections of the Southern border must reach a “90 percent effectiveness rate” within five years. That would be the “number of apprehensions and turn backs” divided by “the total number of illegal entries.”

If border states don’t reach the 90 percent target, a group of border state governors (or their appointees) and federally-appointed security experts would step in to draft a new plan to boost effectiveness—on which the DHS can spend up to $2 billion more. The new bill would also create a presidentially-appointed DHS Task Force to regularly review border enforcement policies.

Increased surveillance should help border agents get a better count of the total number of undocumented immigrants crossing the border, said Doris Meissner of nonpartisan think-tank the Migration Policy Institute. According to Meissner, this is the first time immigration legislation has included a specific metric to gauge whether money spent on border protection is resulting in fewer unauthorized crossings.

“The overall expectation that so much money has been invested, the government has to do better in really laying out how it assesses its effectiveness,” she said. 

For three reasons more spending on attempts to secure our border with Mexico will be no more useful than past and present spending that resulted in 12,000,000 living here without documents.
1) Obama refuses to deport those who entered without proper documents.
2) It would be much more practical, effective, and far less expensive to systematically & continually check the status of all workers in the US. 
3) Many of the undocumented did not jump a border. They arrived with a visa and never left. More border patrols and fences won’t affect them.

Lets admit the truth, our government is incapable of solving this problem primarily because they don’t think its a big problem and they think it isn’t in their political interest to do so.

Jonathan Menes

April 26, 2013, 5:11 p.m.

Why waste money on more border security?  The simple solution is to issue everyone a national identify card or a passport and require employers to verify that everyone they hire has legal status or be subject to criminal and/or civil penalties.  With the internet and credit rating agencies, there is already so much data on everybody. What difference would a national identify card make.?

The photos I have seen of part of the fence shows scalability.  Israel used very tall concrete panels.  The place Sen. McCain saw a woman climbing over the fence had to have been scalable.  As a former business owner I received input from emploees as to solving problems
Have border agents been asked for suggestions
For problems.  Use of cameras and motion detectors and the equipment they are are not using should be used.

I believe we need to have ID cards for every legal citizen so those who overstay their visas have no citizenship.

As usual, follow the money.  Who gets the fence, etc. contracts.  Whom can they be linked to in Congress, that best little w****house in Washington.

Oops, afterthought:  To deter drug smuggling, the simplest answer and the least likely to be implemented, is to decriminalize drugs,put them under specific US drug agency, and tax the bejesus out of sales.

About five minutes after the drug cartels realize there’s no more money to be made out of smuggling, they’ll turn to something else.

This will be more money after bad. The government fails to protect the border so they want to revise immigration? Protect the border first, reduce unemployment,  and then we’ll talk

How in the heck will they calculate that 90%.  You will never know the denominator for sure,

“number of apprehensions and turn backs” divided by “the total number of illegal entries.”

Exactly how are they going to get the total number of illegal entries?  good lord, these are the people making laws…..

We already spend $18 billion and they want $4.5 billion more for enforcement? Please. Waste of tax dollars. Amazing how out of control government spending is. I literally live less than 5 miles from Juarez. I’ve lived for 39 years in Colorado, 10 in California and visited 40 of the 50 states. Never felt safer than I do living in El Paso, TX. I grew up in rural Colorado. El Paso, TX is beyond safe. We don’t need more security, and we certainly don’t need to spend more tax dollars. We need to keep nurturing the billions in trade with Mexico and stifle it with more security.

Oh Puleeze.  Which idiots want more money spent on fences?  Our Legislature is totally out of control and needs to be sent home permanently.  Farmers and construction workers would at least have a better chance at being honest than that crowd of do nothing, know less S.O.B.s we got “representing” use now.  They’ve created a sequester but there’s $billions for fence improvements?  I believe we need to line them up on the capitol front lawn and horse whip the entire congregation.  Thank you for your time.

Any solution must take into account the wildlife migration corridors all along the border.  Hundreds of species migrate across the border.  Some have already been adversely affected by the increase of high walls.


April 27, 2013, 4:36 p.m.

Mandating, and ENFORCING, E-Verify for all jobs, and any entitlement, with harsh prosecutions of any offending employer, as well as the offending illegal immigrants, would do more to stop illegal immigration, than any futile attempt to secure the border, and also do it much faster, and at far less expense. At the same time, E-Verify would provide jobs for millions of Americans

Simply put, E-Verify is, by far, the single most-effective tool we, the people have, to prevent illegal immigration.

So—this would be a fence intended to keep out illegal immigants—enthusiastically endorsed by certain elements of government but strongly disapproved of by other elements—and the taxpayers…?

Probably the Palestinian terrorists would laugh at a fence that is - only meant to deter some poor SOBs that can’t make a living in their own corrupt country. 

No, a REAL fence would deter suicide bombers and other killers who for years murdered innocent civilians before Israel finally had to put up a security fence.

Last time I looked, the Mexican and Central American illegals were not bent on blowing up themselves and innocent Americans.

The drug cartels fly in their merchandise to small fields staffed by equally corrupt US collaborators so they’re not a big factor.

Like I said earlier: Follow the money. Who gets the contracts? Who are they wired into in Congress?  Which politican needs to sound tough on immigration to get re-elected.

What a farce!  Check your wallet, taxpayers!

No, theOf course, the U.S. Mexico fence would not be to deter suicide bombers and other killers (like the

If you can get arrested for hunting or fishing without a license, but not for being in the country illegally ...
you might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.

If you have to get your parents’ permission to go on a field trip or take an aspirin in school,
but not to get an abortion ... you might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.

If the only school curriculum allowed to explain how we got here is evolution, but the
government stops a $15 million construction project to keep a rare spider from evolving to extinction ...
you might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.

If you have to show identification to board an airplane, cash a check, buy liquor or
check out a library book, but not to vote who runs the government ...
you might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.

If the government wants to ban stable, law-abiding citizens from owning gun magazines
with more than ten rounds, but gives 20 F-16 fighter jets to the crazy new leaders in Egypt ...
you might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.

If, in the largest city, you can buy two 16-ounce sodas, but not a 24-ounce soda
because 24-ounces of a sugary drink might make you fat ...
you might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.

If an 80-year-old woman can be stripped searched by the TSA but a woman in
a hijab is only subject to having her neck and head searched ...
you might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.

If a seven year old boy can be thrown out of school for saying his teacher “cute,” but hosting a
sexual exploration or diversity class in grade school is perfectly acceptable ...
you might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.

If your government believes that the best way to eradicate trillions of dollars of debt is to spend trillions more ...
you might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.

If children are forcibly removed from parents who discipline them with spankings
while children of addicts are left in filth and drug infested “homes”...
you might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.

If hard work and success are met with higher taxes and more government intrusion, while not working
is rewarded with EBT cards, WIC checks, Medicaid, subsidized housing and free cell phones ...
you might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.

If the government’s plan for getting people back to work is to incentivize NOT working with 99 weeks
of unemployment checks and no requirement to prove they applied but can’t find work ...
you might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.

If being stripped of the ability to defend yourself makes you more “safe” according to the government ...
you might live in a country founded by geniuses but run by idiots.

Please make the fences so high that American guns can no longer be smuggled out to Mexico and Canada.

The existing security system has certainly worked to diminish the import of illegal drugs. Perhaps the proposed drones will serve to prevent lower quality products from entering the country.

Fences ?  Please.

Sidney Thompson

April 29, 2013, 8:51 p.m.

Have to agree with much said here, but Lori hit the nail on the do you figure that ratio?  It is a lot like trying to prove a negative - it pains me to say that Congress is not impressing me with their logic.

Thank goodness someone is looking after the horrible crime of entering the country without paperwork.

Illegal immigration is a blight on the country, in an entirely different class than, say, widespread fraud by banks, drilling underwater without making sure you can seal a leak (or running a pipeline through Tennessee without fixing cracks), failing to treat injured soldiers properly, or defusing gang violence.

It’s also far more harmful to our way of life than a bunch of unendable wars against phantom enemies that kill civilians and soldiers, draconian security bills from people who can’t follow a budget, and the continual export of all non-automated jobs to foreign countries while wondering why nobody here is buying anything anymore.

Yep, let’s build a bigger fence and get drones patrolling the United States.  A lack of Mexicans will solve all our problems.

It’ll obviously improve national security, too.  I mean, look at how many of these bombers and nutcases snuck into this country!  What, none?  Well, if you believe the facts, the terrorists win.  Support the troops!

The border fence is a placebo to make people feel more comfortable. After it was built near the border near Tijuana, the coyotes and drug smugglers just dug elaborate tunnels below it.

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