Attacks add urgency to DHS push for border technology

The Homeland Security Department highlighted its determination to deploy advanced technology along U.S. borders to stem illegal immigration, drug smuggling and violence as part of a comprehensive program that will also use additional personnel, detention beds and fences.

The Bush administration's Secure Border Initiative is gathering steam amid increasing violence at the border in the form of attacks on Border Patrol agents, officials said.

Yesterday, DHS secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters at a briefing that the department would continue with plans to field advanced technology via the SBI.net program. "The department intends to build an integrated border security system," Chertoff said.

His remarks and the materials distributed at the conference did not elaborate on the department's previous statements regarding SBI.net technology, which likely will include satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles and integrated sensor systems. He noted that the fiscal 2007 budget proposal includes $100 million for SBI.net, a figure released earlier this week.

Chertoff cited the role of two other technology upgrades in the Secure Border Initiative: a $135 million program to upgrade Immigration and Customs Enforcement's pilot for employers to verify employment eligibility, and the $62.9 million additional funding request for 2007 for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program.

These technology programs and other facets of SBI make up a $541 million program with funding drawn from several accounts, DHS said.

Smugglers and other criminals along the border are stepping up their assaults on Border Patrol agents as DHS tightens its enforcement, according to officials. "We have zero tolerance [for attacks on Border Patrol agents]," Chertoff said. "Border Patrol agents are entitled to defend themselves, and they will."

Criminals committed 778 assaults on Border Patrol agents in fiscal 2005, according to the patrol, and there have been more than 100 so far this year.

Attackers using heavy rocks have gravely injured officers and severely damaged vehicles. At times, the criminals use flaming rocks wrapped in oil-soaked rags, DHS said.

The criminals also attack agents with gunfire, the department said. The briefing featured photographs of Border Patrol vehicles and boats riddled with bullet holes.

DHS' expedited removal procedure, aimed at ending the "catch-and-release" policy used in the past, is becoming increasingly effective in foiling illegal entry, department officials said. DHS plans to get additional detention beds to increase its ability to remove, rather than release, illegal entrants.

To counter the violence and border violations, Chertoff said, "the critical thing is to get a common operational picture and a common strategy [among border enforcement agencies]." The Pentagon and the Coast Guard use the term "common operational picture" to describe integrated information an IT system and its associated sensors provide about a zone of interest..

Chertoff said he would provide periodic updates on the progress of SBI, a program that the department wants to publicize around the world to discourage illegal immigration. The briefing attracted intense interest from the international news media.

Wilson P. Dizard III is a staff writer for Washington Technology's sister publication, Government Computer News.

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