Texas' recent designation as one of six test states for a federal project that seeks to expand the use of drones is spotlighting how far apart border lawmakers are on using more unmanned aircraft for border security.
Some say adding more drones to border skies could deter people seeking to enter the country illegally or smuggle drugs and other contraband into the U.S. Others see the potential for accidents and an increase in unwarranted searches.
The Federal Aviation Administration last month selected Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi as one of its national test sites for drones, a designation advocates hope will lead to the creation of about 1,200 jobs in South Texas and contribute an estimated $260 million to the region's economy over the next decade. It follows Congress' passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which seeks to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into national airspace by 2015.
Though details of how university researchers will test and fly the drones are still emerging, some lawmakers have already expressed support for the project and how it could affect border security.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, has advocated for additional drone use on the border as an alternative to fencing. Since 2010, when Congress debated the Emergency Border Security Supplemental Appropriations Act, Cuellar has worked with his GOP counterparts to help Texas acquire two drones for surveillance flights over the Rio Grande. He said the FAA designation would “without a doubt” place more emphasis on unmanned surveillance, and would give Texans a seat at the table as expanded drone policy is crafted.
“This will allow us to have input into the policy of [unmanned aerial vehicles] flying in national airspace,” he said. “And it will allow us to use the higher education system.”
Even image-conscious Laredo, where city leaders have for years pushed back against claims that the city is dangerous due to the violence across its border, sees no problem with more air surveillance.
“The more we keep people on guard as to what we’re doing, I think the better we’re off,” said Carlos Villarreal, the Laredo city manager. “I hear the chopper over my house every day. I don’t mind. I think it’s another level of security that’s good for the border.”
In July, Mexican media reported that a U.S. drone had aided in the capture of one of that country’s most-wanted fugitives, Miguel Treviño Morales, the alleged leader of the Zetas cartel. But the recent controversies at the National Security Agency and an alleged unauthorized cavity search by federal agents in El Paso has others thinking twice about more surveillance.
“Those drones have the capabilities of not just looking at the very narrow band of the U.S.-Mexico border,” said U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso. “We already bear the brunt of so much bad border policy that there’s already the understanding that, to a large degree, your civil liberties are suspended.”
Some local governments in the Big Bend area, including Presidio and Brewster counties, have adopted resolutions that seek to limit the use of drones over their airspace, according to the Big Bend Sentinel. O’Rourke said he will support legislation that requires law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before they are allowed to use a drone for surveillance.
“It couldn’t just be, ‘Hey, I think this guy ... is growing pot in his backyard. Give me an aerial image of that,’” O’Rourke said.
Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi officials said they couldn’t comment on how the project could affect border security because that hasn’t been its focus so far. Instead, they have been conducting test flights that emphasize "sensor integration," said Dr. L.D. Chen, the university’s associate dean of engineering and computing sciences. “We’re looking at, for instance, wildlife and wildfire, looking at oil spill detection and pipeline detection," he said. "We have not looked into border security applications.”
Cuellar said he is working on adding language to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that would require joint systems training between the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and the FAA. The requirement would streamline policy in order to expand the number of drone flights, he said.
U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, whose district covers the border from East El Paso to Dimmitt County, south of Eagle Pass, said he sees the expanded use of drones in the region as a kind of compromise, though an imperfect one.
“Would I rather have drones or would I rather have a joint task force with armed Army patrols on the border?" he said. "The answer for me is that I’d rather have the drones."