Despite the current standoff over the border wall, it is undeniable that U.S. Customs and Border Protection is undergoing a significant modernization as drones, artificial intelligence, block chain and other emerging technology challenging the nation’s borders daily.
Benjamine Huffman wants secure borders, and that means getting a clearer picture of the traffic and trade that crosses into the 328 ports of entry and the international boundaries between them that CBP is sworn to protect.
Huffman, the former chief of the Border Patrol’s Strategic Planning and Analysis Directorate who now serves as Acting Executive Assistant Commissioner of CBP Enterprise Services, calls it the “denominator problem”: knowing the scope of the ever-evolving puzzle laid at the feet of the country’s largest federal law enforcement agency.
“We’ve never really understood how big a problem we’re trying to solve,” Huffman told HSToday in a recent interview. “We call it the denominator problem. How many people are coming across the border? How do we really know how well we are doing?”
Talking the talk on immigration enforcement is one thing, but walking the walk is far different, Huffman said. On an average day, the 60,000-employee-strong CBP oversees more than a million passengers and pedestrians streaming in and out of America’s ports, as well as 300,000 daily air travelers and nearly 80,000 truck, rail and sea containers.
“Whenever you think… you figured out one way to stop it, there’s something else coming next. I mean, you’ve got to be working it all the time. It’s a difficult, very complex job,” Huffman said. “We want the ability to help other people, in some form or fashion, to come to this country and seek some sort of refuge… within the rules and guidelines.”
What lies ahead for the Border Patrol of tomorrow? Huffman hopes that maybe 20 or 30 years from now CBP technology will be so developed that it will react with lightning speed and provide the agency with a continually accurate and comprehensive picture of the comings and goings across America’s ports of entry.
“I envision the Border Patrol will be able to classify things much quicker and faster in the future, relying on technology as things go, identifying what’s coming way before it gets to the border, being able to be there to secure that if all those things start working properly,” Huffman said.
A Daunting Mission
CBP is responsible for policing 7,000 miles of land border and 95,000 miles of shoreline, as well as anything brought into the country by air. The jurisdictional boundaries are mind-boggling for many, and it’s CBP’s sworn duty to spot terrorists, smugglers and human traffickers, agricultural pests and diseases, weapons and drugs – and millions of people, many employing ingenious tactics to sneak into the country – all while facilitating legitimate trade, commerce and border crossings. Additionally, CBP Air and Marine Operations agents helped victims of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. During Hurricane Harvey, a CBP UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter rescued more than 500 citizens in Houston.
While CBP is directed by the executive branch, it is funded by Congress. The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is unlikely to fall in line with the Republican agenda of President Trump and the GOP-controlled Senate – as the current stalemate over border wall funding has confirmed. Federal lawmakers still must also decide on the DHS budget for the remainder of the fiscal year.
“No single agency has a complete picture of the entire threat environment,” states the 2020 U.S. Customs and Border Protection Strategic Plan. “Thus, CBP must lead and aggressively champion strategic partnerships to enhance intelligence and information sharing with our Federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, and international stakeholders.”
Included in the strategic plan:
- CBP continues to update its automated systems with more advanced risk models and algorithms, predictive forms of automation and adaptive technology that reduces the need for human analysis and speeds identification of new and emerging threats.
- CBP applies advanced data analytics to combine shipment data, biographical and biometric data, past importation and travel patterns and enforcement action information to stay ahead of emerging threats.
- Integrating advanced security information with the information used for regulatory risk assessment will result in improved detection rates of dangerous, unsafe and fraudulently entered merchandise.
Wall, Fence, Other?
President Trump has drawn a line in the sand calling for Congress to fund enhanced tactical infrastructure along the entire U.S.-Mexico border to include physical barriers in key areas – a proposal backed by Huffman and his boss, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan – while a constant stream of incidents at the southern border continues to dominate news headlines. “Physical barriers are most effectively deployed in high-traffic areas,” said Huffman.
“For impedance and denial, a modern border wall system will significantly enhance CBP’s efforts to attain operational control of the border between the [ports of entry],” McAleenan said in congressional testimony last spring. “A wall system that integrates sensors, cameras, lighting, and access and patrol roads has the support of our USBP agents working our borders and is the direct result of an in-depth analysis of existing capability gaps.”
More than 650 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border are currently sectioned off by various degrees of fencing, detection technology and/or vehicle barriers. Several small-scale border fence enhancement and renovation projects have also been announced since the summer. Congress has not approved funding for a concrete wall that aligns with Trump’s vision, reflected in prototypes erected near Otay Mesa earlier this year.
“I’m a big advocate of the wall and the wall system, because when you put that steel in the ground, now that’s an enduring capability that lasts for generations,” Huffman said.
Former CBP Deputy Commissioner David Aguilar doesn’t think a wall along the entirety of the border is necessary, and says Congress and the administration need to allow CBP leadership to identify and determine which strategic areas along the border require walls, fences, vehicle barriers and other infrastructure to impede illegal crossings. He also said that border walls should be built 12- to 18-feet-deep to deter and prevent tunneling. He added that walls are very useful in urban areas. “The ability to very quickly cross the border and assimilate into the legal population makes it very difficult [for Border Patrol officers],” and walls create deterrence and impedance, Aguilar said. He is adamant that any infrastructure built along the border needs to be supported by technology that will assist in deterring, detecting, identifying, classifying and resolving illegal cross border activity.
“Do we need a wall along the entire 2,000 miles of the U.S. border with Mexico? Absolutely not, especially in remote areas,” Aguilar told HSToday. “The closest I can come to that is the Big Bend area [West Texas], out in the middle of nowhere. Wall infrastructure, other than accessibility to the border, is going to be useless. You don’t need a wall out there. What you do need is technology.”
CBP, in fiscal year 2018, turned away 204,288 people who were deemed inadmissible or left the country after a short period, and temporarily detained 361,993 immigrants not lawfully in the U.S. This resulted in 566,281 total enforcement actions against individuals, an increase of 40,000 over the previous year.
Aguilar said that “catch-and-release” loopholes in the U.S. immigration system, not enough immigration judges, an asylum system in serious need of review and updating, and the continuing legislative inaction on immigration reform are allowing illegal entrants from countries other than Mexico to exploit America’s “broken immigration system” and remain in the country for years. Due to an overwhelmed immigration case docket backlog and shortage of immigration judges to preside over such cases, it can take years of living in legal limbo in the United States before the migrants appear in court. This situation in itself creates a “pull factor” for others from the sending countries believing that if they enter illegally they will be allowed to remain in the country.
“[In El Paso], 250-300 people are being released every day. In the Rio Grande Valley – double that, triple that,” he said. “So, all of these people, remember, are coming into a broken system.”
One way for CBP to get a handle on things is through tech upgrades. Under Huffman’s direction, the Border Patrol is currently setting up a data science division to improve its ability to monitor the border. While the division is still in its beginning days, the real tech challenge will be systems integration.
“How do you measure your situational awareness? How do you have enough to know you’ve seen it all?” Huffman said. “We invest heavily in technology and we’re going to invest heavier in technology going forward.”
Chief Rodney Washburn, director of the CBP Data Analysis Division, introduced the initiative to Huffman, and will oversee its implementation. No other details have yet been made public regarding the program, its scale or required resources.
In May, the Department of Homeland Security, within which CBP operates, released a government-wide cybersecurity strategy outlining a goal of shoring up cyber detection, making tech improvements and hiring and redirecting staff resources. The CBP strategy was unveiled in 2016, and broadly outlines the goals of the organization.
Aguilar said that machine learning will come into play in the years ahead.
“We have unattended ground sensors, we have integrated fixed towers, we have video surveillance systems, we have aerial platforms… We have the Predators, we have Huey helicopters, we have Black Hawks and it goes on. Each one of those platforms basically still pretty much operates independent of each other,” he said. Aggregating and correlating all these feeds is what we need in order to have a high degree of situational awareness, he stressed.
Matching Names and Faces
At the Port of San Luis, Ariz., on Oct. 26, a camera placed at a CBP checkpoint found that a 30-year-old man did not match the description on his border crossing card. The suspect is one of 46 individuals, including 26 impostors, who have been intercepted illegally entering the country at the southwest border thanks to biometrics technology.
Last year, the Trump administration ordered DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to expedite the completion of a biometric entry/exit tracking system in Executive Order 13780, which is more widely recognized as the travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. Under the order, Nielsen must submit regular reports until the system is fully operational.
The Port of San Luis launched its “technical demonstration” of facial biometrics in September. The technology is also being piloted by the Transportation Security Administration in 15 airports around the country, and has led to the identification and arrest of at least three impostors at Washington Dulles International Airport.
“The biometrics is a challenge,” Huffman said. “So, you know, at a facility it’s easier to get the type of capacity to transmit push data back and forth, but in very remote areas of the border that’s always going to be a challenge.”
A Relentless Flow
The monthly total number of “inadmissibles” – people denied at a port of entry for one reason or another – and arrests at border crossings ballooned to 60,745 in October, a 170 percent increase over the same period last year. Of those apprehensions at the southern border, nearly 5,000 were unaccompanied alien children and 23,121 family units, amounting to nearly 51,000 people, according to CBP.
It’s also meant a constant flow of illicit activity. During the Thanksgiving holiday weekend alone, in addition to closing the San Ysidro border crossing and firing tear gas after some in a group of hundreds of migrants rushed the border, CBP agents uncovered a half-kilo of cocaine at Boston Logan International Airport and rescued a woman impaled on a border fence. Just east of the Andrade, Calif., port of entry, two agents were assaulted by a fleeing migrant who threw rocks at them.
That is but a snippet of the complex traffic that flows through ports of entry across the county – all secured and facilitated by CBP, a 15-year-old organization formed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In fiscal year 2018, the CBP Office of Field Operations seized 283,000 pounds of marijuana, 67,000 pounds of methamphetamine, 50,000 pounds of cocaine, 4,800 pounds of heroin and more than 1,300 pounds of fentanyl. Hardly a week goes by without CBP discovering millions of dollars’ worth of drugs being moved across the border.
“These over-simplistic ideas about, ‘Well, I know how to fix the border. We’ll just do this, do that.’ They don’t work in real life,” Huffman said. “It takes a more complex, long-term look at how to get at those issues. And it takes experts that have been in the border environment, who understand the complex day-to-day of what’s going on.”
Aguilar said that the judicial system around immigration needs revamping in order to adequately deal with incoming populations of foreign migrants seeking asylum.
“And then when the immigration system or judges take that individual into account, they need to very quickly be able to move through the immigration system and make a due process and diligence-based, efficient determination as to whether that person has a right to remain,” Aguilar said. “If they don’t, then they need to be removed back to their countries.”