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Bill Would Put Americans Under 24-Hour Drone Surveillance

America’s border with Mexico isn’t a war zone, but that hasn’t stopped Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and six of his Republican colleagues from introducing a bill that would treat Laredo and El Paso like Raqqa and Aleppo.

In an attempt to curb immigration and drug trafficking at the border, the Building America’s Trust Act [1] would either expand or introduce a whole host of  surveillance tools at U.S. borders, airports and ports of entry. Not only would these tools endanger the privacy rights of Americans living near the border, but they would do nothing to curb illegal immigration.

The bill would require unmanned drones to be flown at the border 24 hours a day, five days a week. That would effectively put anyone living near the border under a state of perpetual surveillance for no reason other than their geographical location. This is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.

Under this bill, each Border Patrol drone would log 6,240 hours of flight time per year. That would be a drastic increase from the Obama years. According to a 2014 report [2] by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, four drones flown by Border Patrol logged a combined total of only 5,102 hours that year.  


Not only does constantly flying drones near the border jeopardize basic privacy rights, it also takes an insane amount of money. The same December 2014 report [2] found that Border Patrol’s drone program cost a whopping $12,255 per flight hour. That means, if the Building America’s Trust Act is passed, the government would spend $76.47 million per year, per drone at the border.

The bill’s overzealous surveillance proposals don’t stop with drones, however. Cornyn and company also propose a minimum of 95,000 manned flights by the Border Patrol’s Air and Marine Operations at the border, per year. Additionally, the bill includes the use of facial recognition software to detect threats at the border and would require the scanning of social media accounts of anyone who applies for a visa.

Cornyn, in a video supporting the bill, makes [3] it sound like border officials are currently handcuffed by burdensome regulations and left helpless on the technological front. But in reality, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) already have an obscene [4] amount of surveillance discretion at the border, particularly when it comes to mobile devices. Current policy allows ICE and DHS to search cell phones, tablets, laptops and other mobile devices, without even a lick of suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. Perhaps most troubling, these rules apply to both citizens and noncitizens alike.

That power has only grown in recent years, as law enforcement has been given more discretion at the border. Under current law [5], ICE and Border Patrol are allowed to conduct searches at the border, without any proof of a crime or probable cause. As Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR.) has put it, this creates a “legal Bermuda Triangle” where expectations of privacy cease to exist. In 2015 [6], immigration officials searched the devices of 8,503 arriving travelers. That number jumped to 19,033 the following year. By February of this year, the Trump administration had already searched the devices of incoming travelers nearly 5,000 times.

Supporters of the bill are touting it as a way to increase border security, and prevent the perceived flow of drugs and criminals into the country. But the data reveals that there is in no need of these drastic precautions. A study by the Sentencing Project found [7] that violent crime in the U.S. plummeted during periods of higher illegal immigration. This should not be surprising given that immigrants—including those who are most likely to be undocumented—are less likely [8] to commit crime than native born citizens.

The risk of immigrants committing a terrorist act is also miniscule. A study by the Cato Institute used data from nine different sources found [9] that, from 1975 to 2015, the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack by an illegal immigrant was just one in 10.9 billion per year.

Even if illegal immigration did threaten national security, the number of people entering the U.S. illegally has hit its lowest numbers [10] since 1970. This decline has more to do with Mexico’s improving economy [11] than it does with strict border enforcement, which has very little evidence of actually deterring illegal immigration. Some experts even say that stricter border enforcement has made things worse.

Between 1986 to 2010, the U.S. spent $34.6 billion [12] on Border Patrol agents, fencing, and military technology [13], yet none of these efforts affected [14] the number of people crossing illegally. Immigrants responded to the ramped up surveillance by avoiding the cities, opting instead to cross through the dangerous mountains and deserts. Others sought help from Coyotes—human smugglers who charge hefty fees and sometimes use their clients as drug mules [15]. Once they arrived, many who would have otherwise returned home after a few years decided to stay permanently just to avoid a dangerous and expensive trip back, increasing [12] the number of America’s undocumented population.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas observed [16] that America has a longstanding history of projecting whatever fears it has onto the border. Anxiety and misunderstanding does not make for sensible legislation. There’s no reason to trust the Building America’s Trust Act.

Dan King is an advocate for Young Voices and a journalist residing in Arlington, Virginia. He writes about free speech, mass surveillance, civil liberties and LGBT issues. He can be found on Twitter @Kinger_Liberty.  

Sam Peak is an advocate for Young Voices living in Alexandria, Virginia. He writes about immigration, taxes, and regulations. He can be found on Twitter @Tiger_Speak.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Bill Would Put Americans Under 24-Hour Drone Surveillance"

#1 Comment By scorpius On September 13, 2017 @ 3:22 am

Gotta love those Republicans…the white man’s burden, no?

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 13, 2017 @ 6:46 am

Bygawd, if it takes a police state to preserve our liberties, then let ‘er rip.

#3 Comment By ScottA On September 13, 2017 @ 7:33 am

Yet another pro open borders article from TAC. I am at the point where I am about to quit wasting my time reading this magazine. Why support a magazine that uses dishonest statistics from an organization like CATO, a corporate funded lobbying organization whose greedy funders only care about having an unlimited supply of cheap labor at the expense of what is best for the country?

As someone who lived in a border state and saw what was once a great place to live ruined by our government’s idiotic immigration policies, I know that the idea that high levels of illegal immigration reduces crime is a joke. You do know that illegal immigration is a crime itself don’t you?

And the “Dreamers” program is full of all kinds of fraud with felons and other criminals being cleared by the program not to mention the “Dreamers” who have committed crimes since Obama started the program. Just because CNN trots out a weeping “Dreamer” with a PhD in astrophysics from Harvard doesn’t mean that they are an accurate representation of the group.

And with our government’s policies on chain migration, once the “Dreamers” are legalized they can petition the government for their parents who brought them here to be legalized, rewarding illegal aliens and encouraging more illegal immigration as the endless cycle continues.

And you aware of all of the massive amounts of illegal drugs that drug cartels are shipping across our borders that are poisoning are communities and are killing Americans? Why are you promoting continuing to have a porous border that will allow this to continue?

Disgusting. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

#4 Comment By DonJose On September 13, 2017 @ 9:51 am

Republicans, as a matter ]of a principle, are opposed to privacy.

#5 Comment By ScottA On September 13, 2017 @ 10:03 am

And I would also add to all the greedy people in this country who want all of their cheap foreign labor and/or more voters for their political party, that there is a saying: We are sewn with the seeds of our own destruction.

#6 Comment By Cliff Story On September 13, 2017 @ 11:58 am

Drones on the border only five days a week? Gee, if cross-border traffic stops on the weekend, do we need to watch the border on holidays? Surely people-smugglers will be watching the football on Thanksgiving as well as on Sundays.

“[T]he number of people entering the U.S. illegally has hit its lowest numbers since 1970. This decline has more to do with Mexico’s improving economy than it does with strict border enforcement”.

If we want to stop illegal immigration, let’s make Mexico richer, so people stay home. Mexico would also become a stronger trading partner, which would be good for the U.S.

#7 Comment By McDeth187 On September 13, 2017 @ 3:48 pm

It’s pretty strange that Conservatives will cry for their freedoms until their throats are sore while at the same time try to enact BLATANTLY unconstitutional laws in the name of “security and protection”.

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

#8 Comment By Uncle Billy On September 13, 2017 @ 4:05 pm

If this helps to prevent illegal immigration and drug smuggling, fine and dandy. However, that being said, my concern is that what if the Government starts using this surveillance information to spy on US citizens? What if the Government starts collecting information on citizens with no warrant or probable cause? For example, if I have a Porsche in my driveway, could the Government conclude that I am living beyond my means and then go after me for income tax evasion?
I know this sounds far fetched, but the Government has done this with other electronic surveillance where they think they have something and then build a case based on “evidence” obtained illegally.

#9 Comment By JRP On September 13, 2017 @ 5:12 pm

This borders on Orwellian. Who honestly believes those drones, if approved, will be relegated to just patrolling the border sometime in the future? Police state? What police state??

#10 Comment By BradD On September 13, 2017 @ 5:30 pm

Gorgon Stare:
“The system is capable of capturing motion imagery of an entire city, which can then be analyzed by people or an artificial intelligence, such as the Mind’s Eye project being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.”

Gorgon Stare (GS) is persistent surveillance. Say you have a bank robbery at 3rd and Main. GS would let you ‘rewind’ and identify the get away vehicle, tracing it back to its point of origin. With the right algorithm you can trace, plot, and find anyone’s routine you want. The problem is you need 24/7 UAV coverage, which this bill would fix.

#11 Comment By Rostale On September 13, 2017 @ 5:40 pm

The title of this article brings TAC down to mainstream media levels of disingenuous misdirection. Failing to mention that it is the border under surveillance is extremely dishonest, even if there are good reasons to be concerned about the bill, the fact that the author chose to lie by ommission right from the start is very telling.

#12 Comment By Pancho Villa On September 13, 2017 @ 6:10 pm

Was this article lifted from the latest Mother Jones rag?
The authors (indeed described as LGBT-Rights lefties) characteristically propagate canards such as illegal-committing-less/er-crimes, while omitting unassailable law enforcement stats such as our prisons bloated with illegal immigrant inmates — in ratios 8 times larger than the mainstream population!

What gives Am Con? Have you been bought out by some Mexican cartel? Or are your relatives been held for this propaganda ransom?

#13 Comment By Rick On September 14, 2017 @ 12:17 am

Over my dead body! Oh wait…what’s that sound?

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 14, 2017 @ 1:15 pm

uhhhhh . . .

start by building a wall.

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 14, 2017 @ 1:16 pm

drones are not barriers they are after the fact candid cameras, that will be of little use.

build that wall.

#16 Comment By Wizard On September 14, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

Ya know, it’s kinda funny, my copy of the Constitution doesn’t mention any “rights free” zones. I guess those silly Founders were just clueless libtards.

I love you, Big Brother! Do it to Julia, not me!

#17 Comment By Weldon On September 16, 2017 @ 3:18 am

Privacy has been suffering for so long now that it’s probably for the best if it goes quickly.

#18 Comment By Rossbach On September 16, 2017 @ 8:41 pm

There is an alternative. Enforce our national immigration laws. Deport those who enter illegally and jail repeat offenders.

#19 Comment By Cell beat On May 30, 2018 @ 2:14 pm

Well there goes privacy for americans. RIP. You will be remembered.