In the past decade, the federal government has showered billions of dollars on border security and enforcement.
The money has purchased everything from a huge increase in border law enforcement workers to new vehicles, miles of fencing and all variety of high-tech surveillance gear.
It’s also bought a lot of nothing.
One example: A program designed to purchase sophisticated radiation detectors for ports of entry to better guard against terrorism attempts was abandoned in 2011 after years of haphazard planning and poor results of the new equipment. Among other things, it sounded false alarms for radiation in such materials as granite and kitty litter, according to a government report.
By the time the program was canceled, the Department of Homeland Security, the Cabinet agency that includes Customs and Border Protection, had sunk more than $200 million into it.
That represents a fraction of the estimated $100 billion the U.S. government has spent on border security within the past decade. The unprecedented spending that has transformed the borderlands of the Southwest has also led to a nearly nonstop stream of reports, audits and studies criticizing how some of the billions has been spent.
A U-T San Diego review of those reports and audits showed that border enforcement agencies have been criticized for spending on everything from the steel bought and used for the fences to helicopter repair programs, even housing for Border Patrol agents.
The missteps leave critics deeply skeptical over how additional billions would be spent, if approved as part of immigration reform legislation that Congress may pass.
“They’ve been given too much money too fast, when they don’t have strategies in place of how they are going to spend it,” said Tom Barry, a researcher with the Center for International Policy and a frequent commentator on border policies.
In testimony to Congress and in response to audits, Customs and Border Protection has acknowledged errors but also insists the unprecedented boost in spending has made the border, particularly the boundary with Mexico, far more secure.
Apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants trying to enter the country across the southwestern border with Mexico have plummeted.
In 2000, the Border Patrol caught 1.6 million people. This year, the agency is on track to apprehend fewer than 400,000.
Seizures of drugs, both by agents in the field and CBP officers at the ports of entry, totaled 4.2 million pounds in 2012 — up from 1.5 million pounds in 2000.
The agency points to those numbers as signs that the hardening of the border has been effective. But those gains have come along with some eye-popping spending blunders.
Chief among those was a failed effort to construct a high-tech fence along the U.S.-Mexico border that would use cameras, sensors and other gear to lock down the boundary, dubbed SBInet. Congress appropriated some $4.4 billion for the fence in 2006. In the succeeding years, 26 audits detailed cost overruns, blown deadlines and equipment that didn’t work as intended.
In January 2011, the program was canceled after $1.1 billion had been spent and just 53 miles of the fence was built.
Now the agency is embarking on a second plan known as Integrated Fixed Towers along the border. It would utilize some of the equipment from the SBInet but also deploy a network of towers with radars and cameras that would be able to detect an adult walking as far as 7 miles away. Images would be transmitted back to agents at a command post.
Estimated cost for the entire deployment is about $1.1 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Double the budget
In the upcoming budget year, Customs and Border Protection is slated to receive $12.5 billion. That is an increase of more than $500 million from 2013, and nearly double the $6.7 billion the agency received in 2006. It does not include additional dollars that could flow to the agency as a result of a new border security bill.
The agency is now the largest component of the massive Department of Homeland Security, which contains 22 separate agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Coast Guard and Transportation Security Administration.
More than one of every five dollars allocated to the Department of Homeland Security goes to Customs and Border Protection — about 22 percent of the department’s total budgetary authority of about $60 billion.
Scrutiny over the years over how the money has been spent has covered numerous areas. A sampling:
• Customs and Border Protection paid far more than expected for a 25-acre parcel of land in Lordsburg, N.M., for a new Border Patrol station in 2009. It’s one of many new and upgraded stations built to handle an increase in agents. Original appraisals by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers valued the property at $37,500 and $47,500. A competing appraisal from the state of New Mexico, the property owner, pegged the value at $1.25 million. The difference stemmed from disagreement over comparable sales in the area.
The final price of $750,000 was settled on after another round of appraisals and after Customs and Border Protection dismissed the first two valuations because they “misinterpreted key elements” of the property, according to an audit of the sale by Homeland Security’s inspector general.
The audit faulted the agency for poor bargaining tactics, because it insisted on locating the new station in tiny Lordsburg. The 56,000-square-foot, $25 million station has a wind turbine, indoor gun range, underground rainwater collection system and room for 375 agents.
• In May, the inspector general audited Customs and Border Protection’s program for refurbishing and updating its aging fleet of H-60 Black Hawk helicopters. The report found the agency “did not properly manage or oversee” its program.
The audit said that over four years the agency had the Army — which had loaned the helicopters to the agency — do the overhaul at a cost of $22.3 million per helicopter. By contrast, the Coast Guard had the same helicopters and refurbished 27 of them in the same time period at an average cost of $5 million each.
The helicopters flew an average of 15.4 hours per month in 2011, the audit said. The Coast Guard’s Black Hawks flew an average of 54 hours a month.
The delays and increased costs for repair, coupled with the expense of flying the gas-guzzling choppers, means the agency is considering idling as many as nine of the choppers in 2014, the audit concluded.
After nearly a decade and billions of dollars spent controlling the border, in 2010 Homeland Security said it had “operational control” of less than half of the boundary. That definition means the Border Patrol can consistently detect and catch illegal border crossers.
With more than half of the border not under that kind of control, Homeland Security did something unusual: It stopped in early 2011 using “operational control” of the border as a measure of how well the border agencies were doing their jobs.
A GAO report this year said that the department is now using apprehensions of people who cross as an interim measure of how effective the Border Patrol is. But the GAO noted this measure “reports on program activity levels and not program results” and it therefore limits the amount of oversight and accountability of the agency.
With potentially billions more poised to be spent on border security, critics are calling for a clear-eyed assessment of how well the money is working. Barry said the agency has to come up with a more cogent overall strategy for how it will control the border with the infusion it receives and decide on specific performance measures to gauge if the strategy is working.
“There has to be a bottom line, somewhere,” Barry said.
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