Texas became the flashpoint of debate over a Bush-era plan to line the southwest border of the United States with fences, motion detectors, lights and surveillance cameras to keep undocumented immigrants out. Known as the Secure Border Initiative, the program included building “tactical infrastructure,” or vehicle and pedestrian fences stretching across 660 miles of the nation’s nearly 2,000-mile boundary with Mexico. Critics maligned the plan in unlikely alliances. Environmentalists warned that construction would threaten the habitats of endangered species, such as wildcats. Landowners were angry that they were being forced to turn over private property for the project. The University of Texas at Brownsville complained that the fence would split up its campus. The federal government sued dozens of people for access to needed parcels, and they, in turn, sued right back creating a dizzying array of litigation. In the spring of 2008, a group calling itself the Texas Border Coalition filed suit against former homeland security chief Michael Chertoff in a bid to stop 70 miles of fencing planned for the Rio Grande Valley. Several jurisdictions on the Texas border including the counties of El Paso, Hidalgo, Starr and Webb formed the coalition. The group’s complaint said Congress had directed the Department of Homeland Security to “reach a reasonable price for the property interest they seek before moving to condemn their land.” But according to the suit, federal officials demanded “voluntary” right-of-ways lasting for six months that allowed them to proceed with work while not acknowledging a need to negotiate fair compensation. The plaintiffs argued that the Department of Homeland Security failed to consult with them about the environmental and commercial impacts of the fence and alleged that the fencing arbitrarily ceased in locations where wealthier and more powerful landowners controlled property, such as a golf resort in Brownsville. The fence also appeared to bypass land belonging to a Dallas billionaire, Ray Hunt, who donated $35 million to Southern Methodist University, which reportedly helped pave the way for the construction of Bush’s presidential library. A judge tossed the coalition’s suit in 2009, and the year before that the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to hear a challenge from environmental groups regarding a section of the barrier in Arizona. But in the end, resistance from city leaders, ranchers and wildlife protectionists perhaps wasn’t the greatest headache faced by the Department of Homeland Security. The Secure Border Initiative has been beset with cost overruns, schedule delays and other problems. The average per-mile cost for fencing has reached $4 million, much more than what Washington had initially predicted. Investigators at the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog arm of Congress, additionally learned in 2009 that fences had suffered more than 3,300 breaches costing an average of $1,300 each to repair. The project also included an ambitious plan to expand the enforcement range of patrol agents by draping border territories with high-tech sensors, lights, surveillance cameras and radars. That element is known as SBInet. A test portion experienced serious delays “because the contractor-delivered system did not perform as intended,” according to a 2008 report from the GAO, which added that “contractor oversight was limited.” The contract for SBInet was awarded to the large defense contractor Boeing Company in September of 2006. According to GAO findings, software selected by Boeing was built to accommodate a law enforcement dispatch system and “not designed to process and distribute the type of information being collected by the cameras, radars, and sensors.” Rainstorms accidentally set off the radars and the surveillance cameras couldn’t see even half as far as hoped. In the latest GAO report from September of 2009, investigators found that SBInet was still being delayed “due to flaws found in testing and potential environmental impacts.” Windy days caused a radar to give off excessive false detections, for instance. The GAO predicted that SBInet wouldn’t be done until seven years after the original estimated completion date of early 2009. Congress appropriated more than $3.7 billion for the Secure Border Initiative over five years, including $100 million from Barack Obama’s economic recovery package, according to government figures. In Texas, meanwhile, Gov. Rick Perry launched his own miniature border initiative by deploying 200 cameras to aid law enforcement in identifying illegal boundary crossers and narcotics traffickers. The program was financed with $2 million in federal grants. But the El Paso Times obtained an internal report with help from the Texas Public Information Act showing that the investment had not met expectations and only a handful of cameras were installed. While a Web site connected to the cameras received hundreds of thousands of hits, three arrests were made in the first six months, a fraction of the 1,200 authorities hoped for over a year-long period. As of July 2009, Perry’s project looked to be running out of money. When it comes to how Texas has used federal anti-terrorism and emergency preparedness grants generally since 2001, the state’s Department of Public Safety turned over a detailed spreadsheet showing thousands of transactions made between 2003 and 2009 in response to our own public-records request. Texas has been a top recipient of homeland security grants due to its size, population and number of large metropolitan areas. The Excel file is available for download here, and you can easily search within it by jurisdiction. How much were the three plasma TVs the Alamo Area Council of Governments bought with 2004 grant funds? More than $5,300 total. How about the mobile-command vehicle purchased by the city of Bryan with 2005 cash? $500,000. Texas officials also supplied us with scores of so-called “site monitoring” reports generated by the Department of Public Safety as part of its grant oversight responsibilities. Guidelines direct each state to periodically visit local communities and inspect grant-purchased safety gear to ensure it’s being appropriately used. Those records show that while many communities in Texas had no problem complying with federal grant rules, others left expensive preparedness equipment in its original packaging or used trucks for regular patrols that they promised would be preserved for disaster response. We’ve consolidated the reports into one PDF file and uploaded it here. Search for keywords such as local governments. Additional audits of grant spending in Texas are posted, too.
G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.More by G.W. Schulz