Acknowledging concerns about the rate of drug smuggling through ports of entry, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told senators this week that the Department of Homeland Security is aiming for a big hike in the next few years in the number of passenger and commercial vehicles that get screened.
“Right now it’s about 1 percent of passenger vehicles and about 15 percent of commercial vehicles,” Wolf told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security. “I will say that Congress in FY ’19 and FY ’20 did provide a number of funding for our NII technology that would screen for narcotics. So the goal by 2023 is to increase passenger vehicles from 1 percent to 40 percent using that funding that Congress provided, and then for commercial vehicles from 15 percent to 72 percent.”
“We see the majority of narcotics coming through the ports of entry,” he added. “We will interdict those about two-thirds of the time. About one-third is coming between ports of entry, but over the last fiscal year we have seen an increase of those narcotics.”
Wolf argued that “from a holistic view, it’s all of the above” on using interdiction technology or physical barriers to stop the flow of drugs.
In a pair of hearings to review the department’s fiscal year 2021 budget request, Wolf also answered questions from the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security about the outlook for facial recognition technology.
“As CBP continues to work on the exit part of the entry-exit program using a variety of biometrics, TSA I would say is also very interested in learning what CBP is doing from their pilot phases, is also looking at some of that biometric technology on how they can apply that at the checkpoint as well … my job at the department is seeing what centers of excellence that we may have at CBP that are doing biometrics and facial recognition particularly on their exit side and how we can scale that across the department at TSA and some of our other travel programs that we use,” Wolf said.
“Again, I think anytime we talk about biometrics and facial recognition, we’ve got to talk about privacy,” he added. “And so that’s something the department keeps, you know, very focused on making sure as we roll out these programs that we are keeping U.S. citizens’ privacy protected, civil liberties protected, and that’s something that we hear about at the department as well with these programs.”
House and Senate appropriators expressed concern to the acting secretary about the use of eminent domain to seize private land for the border barrier project.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said he calculated that “about 235 miles will be needed to be acquired from private land owners or private holdings,” and asked how many landowners had given DHS access to build new border fencing.
“It’s certainly a complex procedure, anywhere from the title search, survey,” Wolf replied, before Tester interjected, “I got it. The question is, is that if you come on my land and you use eminent domain those are fighting words.”
“A number of landowners have allowed us on land to survey. There are some that have not. We continue to work with them. Again, the Army Corps through their contractors are doing that,” Wolf said, adding that eminent domain has been exercised “in just a small handful of cases.”
“I just haven’t seen you know, a pleasant experience with the landowners,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) noted in the House hearing Wednesday. “As you know, the GAO was in Laredo, in the valley the last couple of days to make sure that we don’t abuse the eminent domain when it comes to private property rights.”
Wolf said DHS is working with the city of Laredo, which sits on the Mexican border, “on perhaps some alternative designs that meets their needs as well as ours.”
The Rio Grande Valley is the location of “the predominant private land” in the path of the border project and the Army Corps of Engineers “is doing the work on the ground, is out trying to survey the land, trying to assess title, trying to do a number of things as we look at constructing that border wall system.”
“So yes, I will say that you certainly have my commitment to make sure that we bring in the landowners, we have that discussion,” Wolf said. “I think at times there will be some that we just disagree with and we will have to continue that process, but we want to be transparent about that. We want to let them know what our requirements are and then what their concerns are and have that discussion.”
Tester asked about the recent DHS decision to waive contractor rules to expedite border fencing construction. “Doesn’t your procurement law eliminate any bidding, any protest? So, the question is how do we hold these folks accountable if they get a sweetheart deal?” the senator asked.
“They’ve already been prequalified. They’ve already determined contracts. Most of them are already building the border wall system today,” Wolf replied. “So, the idea is to, again, add on to those contracts as that additional wall and that additional property become available. So, again, these contractors have been vetted. They’ve gone through that contracting process. They hold the task order with the Army Corps.”
Asked whether any small businesses were among the contractors, Wolf replied, “I believe there are — there is one.”
Wolf told senators about 126 miles of border fencing has been completed, with another 213 miles currently under construction and another 414 miles in the pre-construction phase.
“The capabilities, as I often talk about, are night and day over the existing 1970s-era landing mat fence that the Border Patrol had. So new capabilities include not only the physical infrastructure, but lights, cameras, radars, fiber optics,” he said. “The impedance and denial that the new border wall system provides to Border Patrol agents, again, is night and day to what they previously had. So as I tour the border, and as I go down there and talk to our men and women in green, I ask them what do they need to secure the border. Resources, technology, and then obviously the staffing. So it’s a sort of a three-legged stool. But when we talk about technology, the first thing that they ask for is an effective border wall system that, again, provides that impedance-denial so that they can respond in a timely manner and then apprehend those that are looking to get in.”
The president’s budget request includes $2 billion for the construction of 82 miles of new border barrier system, as well as additional funding for technology and staffing.
“While securing our borders is of utmost importance, the integrity of our immigration system requires that we enforce the law as written. It remains the priority of the department to protect our citizens by identifying, detaining and removing criminal aliens from the United States,” Wolf told House lawmakers. “The budget includes over $3 billion to ensure that our law enforcement has the resources it needs to faithfully execute the law.”
Wolf was in Honduras last week for a security ministerial and said the Northern Triangle countries and government of Mexico continue “to do additional, I would say, enhancement operations on making sure that they address the illegal flow of migrants in their country, as well.”
Wolf also addressed concerns about CBP teams assisting ICE enforcement for the next 90 days.
“All of those individuals that are deploying in a number of cities across the country have specialized training that will support ICE ERO officers that are going into these communities,” he said. “It is very similar to what other federal agencies provide ICE on a daily basis, as well. Other federal law enforcement agencies provide that support as well. Again, I think there has probably been some misconception. These are not individuals that are going to show up in riot gear riding down the street in a tank, which I have seen pictures of as well. That is not the case.”
“You probably will not be able to distinguish them any different than ICE ERO agents or any other federal law enforcement agent that supports ICE. They will be in plainclothes. Of course, they will have the appropriate vest on that they need to do their job but they will be trained there to support ICE as needed.”
Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) asked about the timing of the operations: “There is a lot of fear in our communities and in our districts and the timeframe just makes it a lot more challenging for the Census Bureau to do their job and people have misconceptions, hopefully, that they are not coordinating with law enforcement,” she said.
“I would say the time frame, or maybe the coincidence of the Census Bureau was never factored into that decision-making for us, so it was never brought up, at least in any discussions that I’ve been in regarding this,” Wolf replied. “I’ll certainly take that back to the team to see what we can do to address any concerns about the census and see what can be done in these specific locations. Again, there’s only about 6 to 7 cities.”