The American people deserve smarter, less wasteful border security

Yesterday I, along with 23 of my colleagues, introduced legislation to rescind President Trump’s misguided executive order that, among other things, mandates the federal government to begin immediate construction of a wall along our U.S. Southern border with Mexico. This wasteful endeavor would cost us far more than any benefits it will provide, and I think that anybody who takes an honest look at the president’s proposal can see that. That’s why I’m hopeful that some of my Republican colleagues will consider joining me in this cause.

Over the past several years, as Chairman and then Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, I made several trips to our southern and northern borders. I also traveled to Mexico and the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — to better understand the violence, lack of economic opportunity and lack of rule of law that are the root causes of Central American migration to the U.S. southern border.

On each trip to our southern border with Mexico, I had the opportunity to hear from Department of Homeland Security officials on the ground and learn how Congress can do its part to help our Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Border Patrol agents achieve their mission. Again and again, these agents tell me that technology is the key to securing our border.

My conversations with the people on the ground helped me recognize that we must prioritize the acquisition of advanced cameras, sensors and radars so our agents have real time situational awareness along the border. Underground sensors and night vision equipment have also proven enormously effective at detecting unauthorized entries.

We can send more technology to the border at a lower cost to the taxpayer by working with the Department of Defense to reuse equipment that is no longer needed by our troops in places like Afghanistan. For example, right now, we’re reusing blimps called aerostats in the Rio Grande Valley that are equipped with surveillance technology that can track people attempting to enter our country unlawfully. CBP has also been using P-3 aircraft, like the ones I flew during the Vietnam War, to detect the movement of illicit goods.

We must also take stock of the assets we are already using at the border to ensure the equipment we’re deploying is actually up to the task. If we have a plane, helicopter or drone in the sky, we need to make sure it has the right cameras and radars so our agents are not flying blind.

These technologies are smart, proven investments that help border agents perform their mission and get better results along our borders. They cost a lot less than building a wall — and unlike the wall, we know they are effective. I call them “force multipliers.” In some sections of the border, the best force multipliers may be advanced radar systems on drones. In others, the best force multipliers may be horses that agents can rely upon to quickly trek through steep and remote terrain, unsuitable for vehicles.

But President Trump wants Congress to spend billions of taxpayer dollars to build his wall and fulfill an outrageous campaign promise. The president has long waxed poetic about building a wall along our border with Mexico — and promised us that Mexico will pay for it. But the truth is, Mexico won’t pay a penny. Even Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has admitted that. So President Trump is saddling us with an exorbitantly expensive structure that serves as a one-size-fits-all solution to a problem that has many, many shapes and sizes. Americans are smarter than that.

Worse yet, to pay for his wall, the Trump administration wants to gut the budgets of two agencies on the front lines of the effort to protect our homeland and keep Americans safe, hacking 14 percent from the Coast Guard’s budget and 11 percent from the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) budget.

That just doesn’t make any sense. The Coast Guard provides helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and fast boats for our southern border that are vital to interdicting drugs headed for our communities. And TSA deploys teams of agents to patrol our airports and mass transit hubs for suspicious activity, looking to prevent attacks like the one we saw in Brussels. If President Trump thinks he can better secure our land, air and sea borders by cutting funds to the Coast Guard and TSA, he’s got another thing coming.

What’s more, it’s not clear how much this wall will actually cost. An internal DHS report has estimated that completing a wall along our southern border will cost about $21 billion, and an independent firm put the cost at close to $25 billion. That estimate only takes into account the cost of materials to build the wall — not, as some of my colleagues have pointed out, the cost of acquiring the land on which the wall would be built — or litigation against landowners who don’t want to hand over their land to the federal government. These estimates also don’t account for the operations and maintenance costs of a wall, which would number in the tens of millions of dollars annually.

We already have 650 miles of fencing along our southern border with Mexico in the areas where it makes the most sense. Interestingly, in a recent report by the GAO on the effectiveness of fencing along the U.S. border, the agency could not determine the wall’s real security benefit. Border agents told GAO that migrants have cut through fencing using bolts or pipe cutters, some using power tools. Some migrants have burrowed under the fence. Others have used a ramp to drive over the fencing. And some migrants simply jump over the fence. Regardless of whether the migrants have gone through, under, around, or over the wall, it’s pretty clear that the wall is not a silver bullet for securing our border.

According to GAO’s report:

Between fiscal years 2010 and 2015, CBP recorded a total of 9,287 breaches in pedestrian fencing. According to our analysis of these data, illegal entrants breached legacy pedestrian fencing at an average rate of 82 breaches per fence mile, compared to an average of 14 breaches per fence mile of modern pedestrian fencing.

What about a taller, or more complete fence or wall? According to GAO, border agents have found evidence of people using small aircraft to carry contraband over the fencing, as well as building subterranean tunnels to go under the fencing. No matter how tall or long the wall that President Trump asks Congress to fund, people will find ways to get through, and our border agents will have to react nimbly to the inevitable breaches.

The truth is that expending billions of taxpayer dollars on a wall is not a border security strategy. Over the past decade, the U.S. has already invested a quarter of a trillion dollars to enhance security along our borders. Net migration from Mexico is less than zero. Overall apprehensions of undocumented migrants are at 40 year lows. Many experts agree the border is more secure than it has been in years. Continuing the tremendous progress made to strengthen our border should be a bipartisan priority, and investing in the technology and tools that help border officials stay nimble and achieve their mission should be our top priority.

That’s why we must take a layered, informed approach to security, including people, technology, and, where appropriate, physical barriers. We should couple that with a strategy to address the root causes of migration to our southern border, and comprehensive immigration reform that creates a path to citizenship that is safe, legal and humane. I know my colleagues and I have some work to do before we can reform our broken immigration system. But the President’s one-size-fits-all border wall and his other other uninformed approaches to addressing our immigration system will not make us more secure. Moreover, it will waste billions of taxpayer dollars.

We need to listen to the many experts who have told us that security can’t be achieved only at the border. As General John Kelly, now Secretary of Homeland Security said in his nomination hearing:

“A physical barrier, in and of itself, will not do the job…I believe the defense of the southwest border really starts about 1,500 miles south, and that is partnering with some great countries as far as south as Peru really that are very cooperative with us in terms of getting after the drug production and transport, very, very good with us.”

Building a wall is an expensive and ineffective substitute for comprehensive immigration reform, and I agree with Secretary Kelly that any of our efforts to secure the border will show little return on investment if we don’t work with our neighbors in Central America to address root causes of migration.

Though constructing a wall may be the worst idea in the President’s executive order, it’s not the only ineffective immigration policy President Trump is doubling down on with this order. The executive order also calls for the construction of new detention facilities at our southern border, which will likely house nonviolent undocumented immigrants at great expense to the taxpayer. Additionally, the order would grow the force of CBP agents by nearly 25%, necessitating a cut in hiring and training standards and most likely leading the agency to hire candidates susceptible to corruption by drug cartels.

The American people deserve smarter, less wasteful border security.

I urge my colleagues from both sides of the aisle to join me in supporting this legislation to rescind President Trump’s executive order to build a wall, and work with me on supporting our border agents and strengthening border security.