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It's been more than a quarter century since the federal government enacted any immigration legislation that was not primarily about enforcement aimed at stopping illegal immigrants from getting into this country. Over that time, the government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars and hired tens of thousands of staff to help seal off the border. NPR's Ted Robbins looks at what our taxpayer money has bought.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: The nation's southern border bristles with equipment, technology and manpower designed to catch illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. It's a border industrial complex, fed by the government and supplied by defense contractors and construction companies.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK. We got some runners off of the 3 o'clock here. We're moving towards them.
ROBBINS: Equipment like this Blackhawk helicopter, just one of hundreds of aircraft flying daily missions.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The bodies are straight down the hill from us. They're off our right front.
ROBBINS: Infrastructure like the border fence, which in some places has been built and rebuilt several times. There are towers, sensors and permanent checkpoints up to 20 miles north of the border.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Please state your citizenship, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: U.S.
ROBBINS: It has spread even further into the country, into cities where ICE - Immigration and Customs Enforcement - agents pursue illegal immigrants and visa violators.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: We're going after a Mexican national. He's currently a lawful permanent resident.
ROBBINS: It even extends nationwide to roughly 250 immigrant detention centers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Yeah, we're going to walk down to echo(ph).
ROBBINS: OK. Some are run by the government, some by private prison corporations. The government spends an estimated $5 million each day to house detainees awaiting deportation.
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ROBBINS: All this takes manpower. Roughly 80,000 federal employees work in immigration enforcement. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO: It is safe to say that there has been more money manpower infrastructure technology invested in the border protection mission in the last three years than ever before.
ROBBINS: Since the last comprehensive immigration reform was passed by Congress in 1986, creating this border industrial complex has been a bipartisan affair. It really picked up after 9-11. Nearly every piece of security legislation since then has contained add-ons for immigration enforcement. If you add up the budgets of the responsible agencies since 1986, the bill is 219 billion in today's dollars. That's roughly the entire cost of the space shuttle program. Unlike the space shuttle program, there's no end in sight. Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Kentucky Republican Hal Rogers, agrees it's going to be hard to pull back spending.
REP. HAL ROGERS: You're right. It is a sort of mini industrial complex syndrome that has set in there, and we're going to have to guard against it every step of the way.
ROBBINS: Arguably, there hasn't been much guarding so far. Here's an example.
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ROBBINS: It's a tall, steel tower teeming with devices in the desert southwest of Tucson. Border Patrol Agent Brent Cagen describes what's on it.
BRENT CAGEN: This has sensor responders on it, as well as a communications package, which is a radar, day-and-night cameras infrared, laser technology.
ROBBINS: It's an SBI-Net tower. The SBI-Net was supposed to be a high-tech virtual fence across the entire 2,100-mile border with Mexico. Instead, these towers cover just 53 miles. Homeland Security pulled the plug on the project after five years and almost a billion dollars.
MARK BORKOWSKI: Frankly, in my view, it was a disaster. And, you know, I ended up, as it turns out, being the person who ended up having to try to manage the way through that disaster.
ROBBINS: Mark Borkowski is in charge of technology for Customs and Border Protection. He came in during the SBI-Net debacle. The Boeing Corporation had built the towers, but the system was ineffective. Some components weren't even designed to work in the desert.
BORKOWSKI: There were issues with heat. Sometimes it was just poor design of cabling.
ROBBINS: It was actually the third time this had happened with high-tech towers. In 1997, there was ISIS, the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System. That was scrapped in 2003 because the technology didn't work. Then came America's Shield, also scrapped.
But the government hasn't given up. Right now, it's going over proposals to build hundreds of new towers. Many of the same defense contractors involved before have bid again - Raytheon, Lockheed and Boeing. Despite problems like that one, members of both parties insist the massive spending on the border build-up is working. Secretary Napolitano is so emphatic, she slaps the table in her office as she makes the point.
NAPOLITANO: Immigration numbers down to 1971 levels, violent crime either down or flat, seizures of contraband up. You know, those are material elements of proof to show that we have got our arms around the border issue, and we are sustaining that.
ROBBINS: But there are also bigger forces at work: economics and demographics. Douglas Massey is a sociologist at Princeton University. For the last 30 years, he's been studying Mexican immigration patterns. He says fewer people are crossing illegally because the American economy collapsed in 2008 and took away the job magnet pulling people here. Those already here stayed.
DOUGLAS MASSEY: Unauthorized migrants very rationally stopped crossing the border.
ROBBINS: Meanwhile, the economy has been improving in Mexico, and the birthrate there has fallen sharply. Fewer working-age people are available to come here and fewer need to, which leads Douglas Massey to this conclusion.
MASSEY: Well, personally, I think the big boom in Mexican immigration is now over.
ROBBINS: If that's true - and a number of experts think it may be - the U.S. is at a crossroads on border spending and strategy. Again, Kentucky Republican Hal Rogers.
ROGERS: DHS is now dealing with the same challenge the entire government's facing, and that's the realization that our budget is hemorrhaging from red ink and we've got to cut spending before it's too late.
ROBBINS: For the first time in its history, the Department of Homeland Security will get less money in its upcoming budget than it did the year before. But Arizona Democratic Representative Raul Grijalva says there's a lot of pressure from Congress and lobbyists to maintain and even move forward with programs.
REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: There's a mutual dependency that's been created in the industries. And Homeland Security and that industry is going to, and is starting to become a very, very powerful lobby up here.
ROBBINS: There are still calls for more infrastructure, more technology and more manpower to feed the border industrial complex. Ted Robbins, NPR News.
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