A big, beautiful wall? US border control in the spotlight


As a prime plank of Donald J.Trump’s presidential campaign, substantially enhanced control of United States borders was expected after he took office. One of the first measures introduced by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was the new President’s revised travel ban, which affects visitors from six mostly Muslim countries: Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Iran and Yemen. The earlier, more draconian version of the ban required CBP officers to turn away visa holders – who were later allowed into the United States.

The travel ban will mostly affect airports as the main points of entry and CBP will have to deal with visa applicants from the six countries as well as all refugees that require a “close” family or business link to the US.

Enhanced border measures

Reports have emerged of severe problems with passengers returning to the US. According to DHS data searches of mobile phones by CBP increased than around 5,000 in 2015 to 25,000 in 2016. Invasive searches are being done without a warrant of texts, social media accounts and photos, and questions asked about the owner’s travel patterns and religious affiliations.

Mobiles can also be held for forensics and data shared with other government agencies. The CBP claim the searches are “critical to the detection of evidence relating to terrorism and other national security matters, human and bulk cash smuggling, contraband, child pornography, and financial and commercial crimes.”

Almost 740,000 – some 40% of foreign entrants – overstay illegally. CBP claim year-to-date totals apprehensions and inadmissible persons at ports of entry along the Southwest Border for FY 2017 by August were 24% lower than the same period in FY 2016.

US Customs & Border Protection

The CBP was established as part of the newly formed Department of Homeland Security in 2003 as the prime policy response to 9/11. The Office of Field Operations, its largest division, admits people and goods at 328 airports, land crossings and seaports. In FY 2016 to end September CBP admitted 390 million people, including 119 million coming through airports.

With an annual budget of $13.5 billion, a presidential request for 21% spending increase is partly to build the controversial wall on the border with Mexico, and to expand the Border Patrol by 5,000 agents. But there is no proposed officer increase for airports, land crossings and seaports.

As the nation’s largest law enforcement agency with some 60,000 employees, there is a serious staffing shortage at CBP, with 1,400 vacancies for officers at ports of entry and a struggle to fill posts. This is due to a staggering 75% failure rate in polygraph testing, mandatory since 2012. Congress passed legislation in June to waive the polygraph test for many veterans and some other applicants.

Much of the work done by the agency is at border crossings along the US-Mexico border. The busiest point of entry is San Diego’s San Ysidro crossing with Tijuana, Mexico, with 31.8 million admissions, an average of 87,000 a day during the past year. El Paso, Texas across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, was second-busiest with 28.8 million admissions.

Border technology

Integrated Fixed Tower (IFT) border security system from Elbit Systems of America for the Douglas, Arizona Area of Responsibility includes sensor towers with radar, day/night cameras and command & control software which correlates sensor information to provide a single operating picture and provides CBP with 24/7 surveillance coverage. Information from the towers is networked into Border Patrol Station command and control centres. ©Elbit Systems

Camera and surveillance equipment used to track the Taliban in Afghanistan – towers, Predator drone aircraft, helicopters using powerful infrared sensors and video cameras – are increasing the illegal entry arrest rate. It also supplants lack of human official presence, as former acting CBP commissioner David Aguilar explained: “It allows them to deploy resources to respond to people crossing or drug smuggling.” Sensors penetrate dense foliage along the river where there are no access roads.

A fake barrel cactus in this scene has a hidden camera. ©Flickr/Pamla Eisenberg


DHS has deployed 12,000 sensors, hundreds of license plate readers at ports of entry, and giant X-ray scanners for trains and trucks. Smaller drones using facial recognition and biometric scanners are in train. Disguised surveillance includes fake barrel cacti with cameras mounted inside and robots to explore underground drug tunnels.

The wall

The projected wall on America’s southern border planned by President Donald J. Trump is estimated to cost at least $25 billion. ©Al Jazeera/US CBP

President Trump intends to build a vast 1,900-mile (3,040 km) wall to span fours states (California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas) to keep out illegal Mexican immigrants. Drug smugglers pass through tunnels and drugs get smuggled in by car. In the past FY year over 250 tons of marijuana, 26 tons of cocaine, 19 tons of methamphetamine and two tons of heroin was seized by CBP. Illegal entrants hide in car boots or use false travel documents.

Aside from the controversy over who will incur the estimated $25 billion cost (and annual maintenance cost of $700 million, according to an estimate by Migration Policy Institute), the wall is planned to cover 1,000 miles (1,600 km) and proponents look to Israel’s West Bank barrier as an example.

So, will the wall enhance US border protection? Currently there is a 700-mile (1,120-km) fence with the rest of the border either open, impossible to build on, or impassable. The remaining 900 miles (1,440 km) are to be supposedly protected by natural obstacles but most experts believe the barrier cannot be made wholly impenetrable, including former senior CBP official Thad Bingel: “Every wall can be circumvented. People can go under it, they can go over it. No one should go into this with the idea that if you just build the right kind of wall, no one will get through.”