Border 'surge' plan would be financial bonanza for private firms

Tribune Washington BureauJuly 9, 2013 

WASHINGTON -- A plan to check fingerprints of foreigners leaving the United States is popular in Congress -- but not at the Department of Homeland Security, where officials say the technology would do little to halt illegal immigration.

But thanks in part to lobbying by security contractors, the Senate immigration bill that goes to the Republican-led House this week includes a computerized "biometric" exit system that could cost more than $7 billion.

The plan is part of the bill's $46 billion "border surge" of security measures, a 10-year spending gusher that would produce a financial bonanza for some of America's largest aerospace, technology and security companies, as well as some border states.

The legislation would force the Homeland Security Department -- which has a total proposed budget of $39 billion in fiscal year 2014 -- to absorb a staggering increase in funding, equipment and staff at a time when most federal agencies and departments are struggling with budget cutbacks, furloughs and reduced services.

After months of wrangling, a bipartisan group of eight senators initially had proposed spending $4.5 billion for border security as part of an overhaul of immigration law. However, that sum jumped tenfold in the final days of debate last month in a bid to win over Republicans who demanded stronger measures before they would consider a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.

If the law is enacted, the

Treasury Department would set aside $46.3 billion in a special trust fund account to protect it from lawmakers who might seek to draw on or reduce the money in future budget battles.

Critics, even those who support reform, say the bill is laden with pork and that politics has trumped policy. Among other problems, the Department of Homeland Security, which was created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has a reputation of poor management and wasteful spending.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, considers Homeland Security acquisitions programs to be at "high risk" for abuse. A GAO report in February concluded that major acquisitions "continue to cost more than expected, take longer to deploy than planned, or deliver less capability than promised."

The immigration bill is unusual in its specificity. It sets aside $7.5 billion to build a 700-mile, high-tech fence, giving the secretary of Homeland Security the authority to "waive all legal requirements" to get the project built quickly.

It would spend $30 billion to add nearly 20,000 agents to the Border Patrol, doubling the size of the force and making it the nation's biggest law enforcement agency. Nearly all would be posted along the Southwest border.

The bill specifies what the agents will get and where: 4,595 ground sensors, 507 radiation detectors, 917 camera towers, 820 pairs of night vision goggles and more.

The expansion will significantly benefit a California company. The border agency recently signed a $128 million sole-source contract with General Atomics, based in Poway, to provide operations and maintenance for its 10 Predators. The same contract taps the company to sell and service 14 additional drones if Congress approves the funding. The expected purchase cost is $252 million.

General Atomics, which spent $2.5 million lobbying Congress last year and $720,000 in the first quarter this year, did not return multiple requests for comment.

The bill also requires the purchase of 15 Black Hawk helicopters from Connecticut-based Sikorsky Aircraft, along with six Vader radars, a drone-mounted radar system developed by Virginia-based Northrop Grumman to detect insurgents planting bombs in Afghanistan. Each Vader costs $9.3 million.

The border crackdown includes more than $50 million to increase prosecutions of border crossers in Arizona, and another $50 million to reimburse other border states.

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