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The Senate immigration bill is heavy on increased border security, which could cost more than $6 billion over the next 10 years. And the bill requires that drones be in the air monitoring the border 24-hours a day. Supporters say additional surveillance is needed but critics question whether the drones flying now are even cost effective.

NPR's Ted Robbins visited a drone base in Arizona and sent this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRCRAFT)

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: The runways at Fort Huachuca, Arizona are busy. This is where the Army tests its military drones, where it trains its drone pilots, and it's where four Customs and Border Protection drones take off and land. From here, they survey the Arizona-Mexico border, mainly looking for immigrants and drug smugglers.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL DOOR)

OFFICER DAVID GASHO: This is kind of our bread and butter payload. This is a Raytheon MTS-B.

ROBBINS: In a hangar next to the runway, Customs and Border Protection officer David Gasho swivels a globe hanging from a drone's underbelly. The globe contains a $2 million surveillance package - a night camera, a day camera, low-light camera and laser target illumination. The drone's biggest selling point is that it can stay in the air for 20-hours. But given budget problems, David Gasho says there's not enough money to keep them up that long.

GASHO: We are barely hanging on five days a week, 16 hours a day here. I am actually - it's very tight to do what were doing right now.

ROBBINS: Yet, the Senate's immigration bill calls for drones to fly 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Democratic Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar is co-chair of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus. Yes, drones have their own caucus. Cuellar wants more drones on the border but he admits it's an expensive proposition.

SENATOR HENRY CUELLAR: For all those folks that have been emphasizing border security, keep in mind that it's going to come at a cost. And we just finished cutting $3 billion from homeland security under sequester.

ROBBINS: Each Predator drone now costs about $18 million fully equipped to buy and about $3,000 an hour to fly. CBP is now testing a sophisticated radar system which costs about $5 million a year to operate. It's called VADER radar and has been used in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an April congressional hearing, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain and others seemed sold on adding VADER radar. McCain questioned Randolph Alles, the head of the CBP's Air and Marine Operations.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Don't you believe that VADER plus drones could be an absolute vital tools in attaining effective control of our border?

RANDOLPH ALLES: I think, sir, it will help us characterize what the border looks like.

ROBBINS: The real problem, say critics like Tom Barry, is that no one has demonstrated that drones are worth the cost. Barry is an analyst at the liberal Center for International Policy. He points to a study last year by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, criticizing the border drone program for a lack of accountability.

TOM BARRY: I'm indignant really in the sense that billions of dollars have been spent since the late-'90s on these high tech systems, without the appropriate cost-benefit evaluation.

ROBBINS: Even CBP says it has more economical alternatives. It's been trying out a Cessna aircraft with a camera costing one-tenth of what the Predator drone camera costs. The agency also relies on ground-based tools such as camera and radar towers. The Senate immigration bill does include those tools for increased border surveillance but it singles out drones for constant flight.

Bryan Roberts used to evaluate border and immigration programs for the Department of Homeland Security. He's now with a private consulting firm. Roberts points out that even 24-7 surveillance won't actually catch anyone.

BRYAN ROBERTS: The surveillance technology helps you find people and it helps you get agents to people quickly. But to actually track down and arrest people requires having people on the ground.

ROBBINS: To catch 90-percent of all illegal crossers - which is what the Senate bill demands - Roberts says the Border Patrol would have to triple the number of agents on the ground from 20,000 to 60,000. That is an enormous undertaking not in the legislation. Drone critic Tom Barry says it's because the bill is more about politics than stopping illegal immigration.

BARRY: The border security is fear-based and also plays to the needs of a growing homeland security military complex that is benefitting from these billions of dollars spent.

ROBBINS: Barry and others say the emphasis should shift from border security to interior enforcement, such as employer verification. That, they say, would catch illegal crossers, the people employing them, and those who entered legally and overstayed their visas. But the politics seem clear: An immigration bill is unlikely to pass without more drones.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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