By Jude Joffe-Block
This is the first of a two-part story on government contracting and how it is changing border security spending today. These stories come to KQED from the Fronteras Desk, a public media collaboration in the Southwest focused on the border and changing demographics.
Some defense contractors and technology companies are looking at the Southwest border as a new opportunity. At the moment, immigration reform seems to be on the back burner in Congress, but if it eventually passes it will likely include billions of dollars for security and border technology.
Imagine this scenario: An intruder hops a fence and starts to walk in a forbidden zone. Instantly, a camera senses his movement, spins around to record him and detects he is a human, not wildlife.
An alarm would alert agents at a command center. They would get video of the intruder and his geographic coordinates. As it turns out, a Phoenix-based company, PureTech Systems, makes software that does exactly this. Larry Bowe is the company president. “You’ll notice that as this target moves, this person, the camera is panning, tilting and zooming simultaneously to keep him in the center of the image,” he says.
Bowe’s software isn’t being used at the border. But he is keeping a close eye on potential new opportunities there. So are other companies, mostly huge defense contractors but also small niche companies. Some make products you never would think of.
Selling ‘Pee Bags and Poo Bags’
Paul Chiba works for Brief Relief, a company in the northern San Diego County town of Escondido. He shows off what he describes as a “pee bag or a poo bag.” Brief Relief makes sanitary baggies with chemicals inside to neutralize odors and prevent the spread of bacteria. One of its main customers has been the military. But Chiba says if there are more Border Patrol agents on the ground in the Southwest border region, “after a while they are all going to have to use a restroom at some point or another, and our products are perfect for that.”
Major military contractors are vying right now for current border equipment contracts. And immigration reform negotiations in Washington are driving industry hopes for even more border spending in the future. The Senate’s immigration bill would add an additional $46 billion for border enforcement.
At a recent town hall meeting, Arizona’s Sen. Jeff Flake explained that the bill’s drafters went to the heads of each border sector and asked: “What new technology do you need, what manpower, what infrastructure? And they gave us a punch list: Here is what we need to achieve 90 percent effectiveness. And that is in the legislation.”
Border Protection’s High-Tech Shopping List
The list in the Senate bill names over 25 categories of technology, and the exact number of units to be purchased. For example, the San Diego sector would get precisely 393 ground sensors and 41 remote video surveillance systems, among other items. The bill also calls for four new drones for use along the border. One businessman who has high hopes of such a tech-heavy bill passing is Laurie Pane. He works in the Burbank office of Grabba Inc. — which is a subsidiary of an Australian company.
“If the funding for extra border security gets passed, we can expect orders in the range of several million dollars to be placed with us. That is our expectation,” Pane says.
Grabba makes a gadget that lets law enforcement use smartphones or tablets to check IDs, passports and fingerprints. It’s already being used by some Border Patrol agents. “They can go into a vehicle such as a bus, for example, and check all of the passengers on the bus without the passengers having to leave the bus,” describes Pane.
Business Opportunities–and Concern About a Militarized Border
If the federal government ups its order—and there is no guarantee that it will—Pane claims his company will start manufacturing the devices here in the United States, which could create domestic jobs. And a border security boost would come at a good time for companies that depend on high levels of defense spending.
Thad Bingel is a Washington-based security consultant who previously was chief of staff at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “Many of the companies who in the last decade relied on that spending, who developed great new technologies for application overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan, they are looking for a customer to replace that,” says Bingel.
But not everyone wants to see more military equipment at the border. Pedro Rios directs the San Diego office of the American Friends Service Committee. “We don’t want the California border to become a war zone,” he says. “What I am worried about is that border residents will no longer be able to do the things they do on a daily basis without fearing that they might be under surveillance by military technology, or that what they do on a daily basis will be questioned by government agents that are using military technology.”
Some members of Congress share those concerns and are reluctant to spend billions more on border enforcement, but up until this point it has been seen as a necessary part of any kind of immigration reform compromise.