HIDALGO — Perched 20 feet above a South Texas cabbage field in a telephone booth-size capsule, a National Guardsman spends a moonlit Sunday night peering through heat detector lenses into an adjacent orange grove.
• Cost of deploying 1,200 National Guard troops on the border for one year: $110 million.
This same night, farther west on the border, a whistle blasts through the pre-dawn quiet as a mile-long train groans to a stop halfway across a Rio Grande bridge. In a nightly ritual, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent unlocks a gate, a railroad policeman slides the heavy doors open, and they both wave flashlight beams under, over and in between the loads of cars, electronics and produce, before they pass through an X-ray machine searching for hidden people or drugs.
• Cost of one rail cargo X-ray screening machine: $1.75 million.
And on this night in southern Arizona, a screener examining tractor-trailer loads of charcoal spots something odd and asks for a closer look. Drug-sniffing dogs bark. He finds 8,000 pounds of baled marijuana in several trucks.
• Customs and Border Protection officer average annual salary: $75,000. Drug-sniffing dog: $4,500.
Until now, the price tag for trying to secure the U.S.-Mexico border hasn't been public. But the AP, using White House budgets, reports obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and congressional transcripts, tallied it all up: $90 billion in 10 years.
For taxpayers footing this bill, the returns have been mixed: fewer illegal immigrants but little impact on terrorism, and certainly no halt in the illegal drug supply.
Sept. 11 impact
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists didn't come from Mexico, but those attacks led politicians to re-examine border security.
During the next 10 years, annual border spending tripled as the U.S. built an unprecedented network along the 1,900-mile border with Mexico: 165 truck and train X-ray machines; 650 miles of heavy-duty fencing and concrete walls; twice as many law enforcement officers along the entire border; and a small fleet of Predator drones. Also, remote surveillance cameras, thermal imaging devices and partially buried ground sensors that sound an alarm at headquarters if someone steps on one in the desert.
"Our obligation to secure our borders involves a responsibility to do so in the most cost-effective way possible, and we recognize that there is no 'one size fits all' solution to meet our border security needs," said Homeland Security Department spokesman Matthew Chandler.
Over the years, the border security goals have shifted. Fears of terrorists sneaking weapons into the U.S. from Mexico were later overshadowed by worries about violent drug cartels. As the U.S. economy faltered, preventing illegal immigrants from sneaking north for jobs increasingly became the focus.
"Border security is no longer just about responding to 9/11. It became very much a part of the immigration debate," said Jena Baker McNeill, homeland security policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.
The border security buildup seems to have helped dramatically cut illegal immigration. Ten years ago, border agents caught 1.6 million illegal immigrants in one year. Last year, they caught 463,000. The drop is attributed in part to the U.S. recession, which decreased jobs here, but it's also a sign, according to federal officials, that fewer people are trying to illegally cross the border.
But all the spending hasn't stopped the flow of illegal drugs. Last year, border guards seized a record 254,000 pounds of cocaine, 3.6 million pounds of marijuana, and 4,200 pounds of heroin. In response, Mexico's cartels simply sent more: trainloads of marijuana, cocaine stuffed in fenders and dashboards, heroin packed into shoes.
An estimated 660,000 pounds of cocaine, 44,000 pounds of heroin and 220,000 pounds of methamphetamine are on U.S. streets in a given year, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. A fraction of that amount is seized at the border, a small operating cost for Mexico's drug lords, who will reap an estimated $25 billion this year from U.S. sales.
Last month, a Justice Department study reviewing the total cost of illicit drug use in the U.S., using cost-of-illness studies, federal crime and caseload statistics, and economic models, came up with a figure of $193 billion per year.
"You can't ever seal the border. You can never stop anything 100 percent. As long as there's a market, as long as there's a profit, there will always be someone taking a chance on getting that product through," said U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, a former Border Patrol director.
Despite the violence just a stone's throw away — the death toll in Mexico's drug war is more than 35,000 — communities on the U.S. side of the border enjoy relative peace. And terrorists typically haven't crossed the border to enter the U.S., officials note.
Still, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, who is on the House Homeland Security Committee, warns against complacency.
"There is a disagreement about the definition of spillover violence and the extent of such violence, but there should be no disagreement about the threat we face and what will happen if this administration continues to downplay the threat," he said. "So what should we do? For starters, we should get out of our foxholes and lean forward against this growing threat. If we don't, the cartels will eventually attempt to take over our cities."
For 2012, the Obama administration's record-high budget for border security proposes an additional $242 million to pay for high-tech watchtowers and movable screeners along the border, $229 million to raise border agents' pay, and $184 million to identify and deport criminal aliens in state prisons and local jails. That's on top of about $14 billion to support the ongoing infrastructure.
This January, the Obama administration dumped an effort to install a high-tech "virtual" border fence project that cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion but did little to improve security.
"The department's decision to use technology based on the particular security needs of each segment of the border is a far wiser approach, and I hope it will be more cost effective," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Are border priorities now matched by spending? The answer depends on whom you ask.
"At some point we got the misconception that border security means securing the border," said Andrew Selee, director of the Washington-based Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a nonpartisan think tank. "It's actually about something much more comprehensive, from reducing drug use to reforming immigration laws, all the while facilitating legitimate trade. The spending needs to match the goals."
View from El Paso
El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar calls the $2.6 billion, 650-mile border fence that winds through the south side of her city "a rusting monument that makes my community look like a junk-yard." Even worse, the rows of 18-foot welded steel bars along the Rio Grande don't do anything to address El Paso's costs from Mexico's drug wars, she says.
For example, since 2008, when violence exploded just across the border in Juárez, hundreds of near-dead victims have been rushed across the border to public emergency rooms, where taxpayers have spent $4.9 million in trauma care for those victims to date. And local sheriffs are overwhelmed with policing transnational gangs. Jails, she said, are overcrowded. Prosecutors juggle cases that should be handled by the feds.
"Where has some of the federal funding gone, if not to my trauma facility or increasing my law enforcement capacity?" Escobar asked. "It's gone to a wall."
By Martha Mendoza
June 25, 2011
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