July 5, 2004 – The Department of Homeland Security announced last Friday that it would be sending two "unmanned aerial vehicles" into the desert skies of Arizona, as part of an expensive initiative intended to achieve "operational control" over the border between Mexico and the US.
For now, the launching of the aircraft, also called drones, is a pilot program scheduled to run until at least September.
The stepped-up surveillance is part of a mission that officials claim will deter undocumented workers and immigrants who have made Arizona the busiest illegal entry point along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
The announcement of the initiative follows a month of unprecedented detentions and deportations of undocumented immigrants in southern California.
The two Hermes 450 drones were manufactured by Silver Arrow, a division of the Israeli company, Elbit Systems, according to Globes, an Israeli business news source.
Last Monday, both drones were expected to go into regular use by the US Border Patrol. The drones will fly 56 hours a week and can be used over preprogrammed flight paths or be sent to check out specific destinations, according to the Associated Press.
Unlike the Predator combat drones used in recent years by US forces in Afghanistan and Yemen to assassinate suspected Al-Qaeda members, those used by the Arizona border patrol will not carry any weaponry, Reuters reports.
The drones weigh about 1,000 pounds, have a wingspan of 35 feet and can fly up to 120 miles per hour. They will patrol at 12,000 to 15,000 feet and have a ceiling of up to 19,000 feet. They can stay aloft for 20 hours at a time and can detect movement from 15 miles up, read a license plate and view a vehicleâ€™s occupants, officials told the AP.
The drones will focus in on a 220-mile western stretch of the Arizona border that includes an Indian reservation, a wildlife refuge and a military range. According to CNN, other recent additions to the Patrolâ€™s technological war chest include tower-mounted cameras, ground sensors, night-vision goggles and portable lifts that let agents view down lines of highway traffic.
Indeed, the pilot program is part of an expensive anti-immigration initiative to seal the Arizona section of the US/Mexico boarder.
The initiative was initially estimated to cost taxpayers at least $10 million, with about $4 million being spent on the drones to lease and operate them through the trial period, the Tuscon Citizen reports.
However, actual costs have since ballooned to double the initial estimates, according to Homeland Security spokesman Bill Strassberger, as other components of the initiative, including deporting Mexicans back to Mexico City and Guadalajara to discourage them from crossing again, will alone cost $13 million, reports the Citizen.
David Aguilar, who assumed control of the Border Patrol as chief last Thursday, told United Press International that an additional 260 Border Patrol agents will be deployed along 260 miles of international border. Arizonaâ€™s border area is 350 miles long. He said the manpower increase will supplement the 2,000 agents on patrol in the Tucson sector.
Figures released in late June by the US Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, a Washington, DC based agency, showed the number of illegal immigrants arrested crossing the border reached 844,052 in the period from October 1, 2003 to June 20, 2004, reports Reuters. This represented a marked increase, 30.3 percent more than the same period from a year earlier, according to the agency.
"The increase in apprehensions shows that we are being more effective in our job," Gloria Chavez, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Border Protection, told Reuters. "The economy is very good this year, plus we have more personnel and better technology along the southwest border."
However, many immigrant rights groups argue that explanations for more arrests such as more personnel and better technology, are mere euphemisms for an increasingly militarized border. And the more militarized the border, these same groups point out, the more treacherous a journey undocumented workers are forced to take.
For many years now the most popular and successful entry points have been rural areas of Arizona, where in some sections, only a barbed wire fence separates the US from Mexico. However, while a barbed fence is not hard to cross, a rural desert certainly is, as the dangerous mission typically entails a two- to three-day journey into the grueling wilderness of Arizona, a trek that often results in serious injury or death.
On average, about one person dies a day; since last October, 346 would-be immigrants have died in attempted border crossings, according to Reuters. Causes of death have included dehydration, exposure and drowning.
"Any measure to boost vigilance along the border carries risk with it," Berta Alicia de La Rosa, of the Mexican government migrant welfare group Grupo Beta, told Reuters. "Migrants will look for ever more remote places to cross in order to avoid detection, such as the deserts of New Mexico where the distances between populated areas are even greater," she added.