Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
America’s border with Mexico isn’t a war zone, but that hasn’t stopped Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and six of his Republican colleagues from introducing a bill that would treat Laredo and El Paso like Raqqa and Aleppo.
In an attempt to curb immigration and drug trafficking at the border, the Building America’s Trust Act would either expand or introduce a whole host of surveillance tools at U.S. borders, airports and ports of entry. Not only would these tools endanger the privacy rights of Americans living near the border, but they would do nothing to curb illegal immigration.
The bill would require unmanned drones to be flown at the border 24 hours a day, five days a week. That would effectively put anyone living near the border under a state of perpetual surveillance for no reason other than their geographical location. This is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.
Under this bill, each Border Patrol drone would log 6,240 hours of flight time per year. That would be a drastic increase from the Obama years. According to a 2014 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, four drones flown by Border Patrol logged a combined total of only 5,102 hours that year.
Not only does constantly flying drones near the border jeopardize basic privacy rights, it also takes an insane amount of money. The same December 2014 report found that Border Patrol’s drone program cost a whopping $12,255 per flight hour. That means, if the Building America’s Trust Act is passed, the government would spend $76.47 million per year, per drone at the border.
The bill’s overzealous surveillance proposals don’t stop with drones, however. Cornyn and company also propose a minimum of 95,000 manned flights by the Border Patrol’s Air and Marine Operations at the border, per year. Additionally, the bill includes the use of facial recognition software to detect threats at the border and would require the scanning of social media accounts of anyone who applies for a visa.
Cornyn, in a video supporting the bill, makes it sound like border officials are currently handcuffed by burdensome regulations and left helpless on the technological front. But in reality, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) already have an obscene amount of surveillance discretion at the border, particularly when it comes to mobile devices. Current policy allows ICE and DHS to search cell phones, tablets, laptops and other mobile devices, without even a lick of suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. Perhaps most troubling, these rules apply to both citizens and noncitizens alike.
That power has only grown in recent years, as law enforcement has been given more discretion at the border. Under current law, ICE and Border Patrol are allowed to conduct searches at the border, without any proof of a crime or probable cause. As Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR.) has put it, this creates a “legal Bermuda Triangle” where expectations of privacy seize to exist. In 2015, immigration officials searched the devices of 8,503 arriving travelers. That number jumped to 19,033 the following year. By February of this year, the Trump administration had already searched the devices of incoming travelers nearly 5,000 times.
Supporters of the bill are touting it as a way to increase border security, and prevent the perceived flow of drugs and criminals into the country. But the data reveals that there is in no need of these drastic precautions. A study by the Sentencing Project found that violent crime in the U.S. plummeted during periods of higher illegal immigration. This should not be surprising given that immigrants—including those who are most likely to be undocumented—are less likely to commit crime than native born citizens.
The risk of immigrants committing a terrorist act is also miniscule. A study by the Cato Institute used data from nine different sources found that, from 1975 to 2015, the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack by an illegal immigrant was just one in 10.9 billion per year.
Even if illegal immigration did threaten national security, the number of people entering the U.S. illegally has hit its lowest numbers since 1970. This decline has more to do with Mexico’s improving economy than it does with strict border enforcement, which has very little evidence of actually deterring illegal immigration. Some experts even say that stricter border enforcement has made things worse.
Between 1986 to 2010, the U.S. spent $34.6 billion on Border Patrol agents, fencing, and military technology, yet none of these efforts affected the number of people crossing illegally. Immigrants responded to the ramped up surveillance by avoiding the cities, opting instead to cross through the dangerous mountains and deserts. Others sought help from Coyotes—human smugglers who charge hefty fees and sometimes use their clients as drug mules. Once they arrived, many who would have otherwise returned home after a few years decided to stay permanently just to avoid a dangerous and expensive trip back, increasing the number of America’s undocumented population.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas observed that America has a longstanding history of projecting whatever fears it has onto the border. Anxiety and misunderstanding does not make for sensible legislation. There’s no reason to trust the Building America’s Trust Act.
Dan King is an advocate for Young Voices and a journalist residing in Arlington, Virginia. He writes about free speech, mass surveillance, civil liberties and LGBT issues. He can be found on Twitter @Kinger_Liberty.
Sam Peak is an advocate for Young Voices living in Alexandria, Virginia. He writes about immigration, taxes, and regulations. He can be found on Twitter @Tiger_Speak.