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News21 September 17, 2006

Big Payoff for Big Business on Border Security?

By Dakin Campbell

Artesia, N.M. - As new recruits climb ladders, swing across monkey bars, and run obstacle courses in the desert sand at the Border Patrol Academy here, another group is working just as hard nearby: construction crews for Skanska USA are erecting buildings that will house and train the growing cadre of future agents needed to meet the orders of President Bush. It's just one illustration of how the private sector will benefit from the huge construction, service and technology contracts that accompany the administration's move to secure America's borders.

As large as it is now, the comprehensive buildup may go beyond the President's plan to add 6,000 additional border patrol agents by 2008, at an estimated cost of more than $1 billion, and millions more may be required to expand the academy's infrastructure. It may also include spending for hundreds of miles of border fences and a high-tech "virtual fence" surveillance system whose cost could reach well into the billions.

To pay for his plan, Bush is seeking $7.8 billion for customs and border protection in fiscal year 2007, a $700 million jump from last year and an increase of 59 percent over the figure for 2004. Congress is debating the terms of the proposal.

But if it passes, the expansion could mean billions of dollars in private contracts for giant companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Bechtel, and Halliburton. Among the lucrative deals would be a $2.5 billion contract for a sophisticated surveillance network, a $2 billion-plus contract for the construction of a massive border fence, and many smaller, multi-million dollar construction projects at places like the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, or FLETC, where the Border Patrol Academy is located.

Building a Boom Town

In Artesia, a once-sleepy town of 10,000 in a remote southeast corner of New Mexico, the federal training facility has been positioning itself for big growth for a number of years.

Between 2000 and 2003, the center was expanded at a cost of $17.4 million, according to watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. The groundwork for its most recent expansion was laid in 2004, when border patrol training was consolidated here, in the home state of powerful GOP senator Pete Domenici. He has pushed for growth here and away from other still active federal training centers in Charleston, S.C., and Glynco, Ga.

Now nearly $50 million has been earmarked for construction and acquisition of a gymnasium, pool, and a dormitory addition here, among other projects. Another $26 million or more is in the pipeline to build a Spanish-language institute on the 220-acre campus.

Private firms are well positioned for the business. Many are familiar with the academy because it contracts out for everything here but the actual training, said Joseph W. Wright, deputy assistant director for Artesia operations, in a 2004 Albuquerque Tribune article. In the past, companies like Skanska USA, Pyramid Services, Warden Construction of Austin, Tex., and Titan, now a part of L-3 Communications, have provided services that include construction, building maintenance, cleaning, food service and other equipment needs.

Building a Border Fence

Border fencing, too, could lead to huge contracts for big business. One plan, proposed by Rep. Duncan Hunter (news, bio, voting record) (R-San Diego), would finance construction of a 700-mile-long fence across the southern boundary with Mexico. Hunter loosely estimates the cost of its construction to be more than $2.2 billion, and past experience suggests that his estimate may be low.

In the 1990s, Hunter secured funding for a shorter fence south of San Diego. At the time, he estimated it would cost $14 million for the first 11 miles. In the end, the segment cost $42 million, according to Sean Garcia of the Latin America Working Group, who proclaimed it a "ridiculous waste of money." And it remains unfinished. Another $35 million was set aside in 2006 to complete the last three or more miles.

If construction of a 700-mile fence did go forward, it would almost certainly involve private contracts. The Army Corps of Engineers, the National Guard, and Border Patrol, which in the past have worked together to build border fencing, simply lack the capacity for a project this size, experts agree.

"That is something that the Corps is not geared up to do," said John Pike, of GlobalSecurity.org. "They would be in charge of setting the parameters, and then managing the contract."

If Congress approves the fencing, the contract will likely be won by a large engineering firm, such as Bechtel or Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root, which would then subcontract segments of the fence to smaller construction companies.

High-Tech Solutions

In January, Homeland Security officials announced yet another initiative with enormous financial opportunity for contractors -- the $2.5 billion contract for the Secure Border Initiative Network, or SBInet, an interconnected surveillance network that will stretch the length of the southern border.

The role of the private sector not only in building but also conceptualizing the plan, was made apparent earlier this year by Homeland Security Deputy Director Michael Jackson, who asked industry representatives for their input.

"This is a unique situation. We're asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business," Jackson was reported to have said, when he announced the $2.5 billion contract. "This is an invitation to be a little bit, a little bit aggressive and thinking as if you owned and you were partners with the CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection]."

Five companies - Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Ericsson, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon - have reportedly expressed interest and are said to have started speaking to hundreds of smaller subcontractors. More than $115 million has already been set aside for the program.

Critics Concerned About Privatizing the Border

Even as the Bush administration gears up its border security plans, critics from both sides of the political spectrum, including former high-ranking immigration officials, academics and immigration advocacy groups, express doubt about how the rapid expansion is being handled, along with the doling out of so many contracts to the private sector.

Such doubts certainly shadow the SBInet contract, coming as it does on the heels of two earlier, much-maligned efforts at establishing an integrated electronic border - the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System and the America Shield Initiative. Those projects were characterized by inaccurate sensors, outdated surveillance cameras and crashes of unmanned drones.

And back in Artesia, doubts have spread to the Border Patrol Academy. At least one expert worries that the academy will not expand quickly enough, in its capacity or training abilities, to handle the influx of border patrol recruits expected in the next few years.

"[FLETC] had some issues dealing with border patrol and capacity, that a large influx of troops could not be handled well,” said Richard Stana, the director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the Government Accountability Office, and co-author of a 2003 report calling for improvement in capacity planning and management oversight at FLETC. "I don't know what they have done to increase capacity, but should the immigration reform bill pass, we will again look at FLETC because an increased number of border patrol agents will be needed."

Those concerns are echoed in the GOP-backed House immigration reform bill, which suggests a close look at the border patrol training program, and also notes that non-profits or private companies might most effectively accomplish such training.

But that image of privatized border security causes some government watchdogs, immigration scholars, and former border patrol and immigration personnel to bristle.

"There are certain jobs that I think civil servants do a lot better than big business," said Michael Cutler, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and 30-year veteran of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Are we going to privatize the U.S. Marine Corps next?"

However it's accomplished, border patrol officials, hardcore immigration enforcement enforcers, and most Republicans maintain there's a critical mission at stake. One border patrol official put it this way: "Our ultimate goal," said Supervisory Border Patrol agent Lorenzo Hernandez at the academy recently, "is to gain operational control of the United States border."


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