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Effort to curb illegal immigration from America's southern neighbor heats up

They're no 192-foot Goodyear BlimpTM, but at 72-feet long, and 40-feet tall the hulking white addition to the Texas skyline strikes an intimidating presence.  That is, it would if you could see it -- the special helium blimp floats at between 2,000-3,000 feet in the air, capable of staying aloft for up to two weeks at a time.

I. From the "War on Terror" to the "War on Drugs"

The floater is produced by a large U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) contractor named Raven Industries.  Raven Industries prefers the term "Aerostat" to blimp to avoid any sort of trademark conflicts.

2011 marked a landmark year for Raven Industries with over 15 of the South Dakota-based company's floaters deployed to battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the contested city of Kabul, a key base for America's occupying force in Afghanistan.  Sales of the blimps helped Raven Industries pull in $381M+ USD in revenue in 2011 [source].

Unofficially dubbed "The Eye in the Sky" or "The Floating Eye" by servicepeople, the DOD is now offering up some of the prized blimps to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency and its parent, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for use in policing the Mexican border.

The Border Patrol preps the Aerostar for a test launch. [Image Source: U.S. CBP]

The Aerostar will be equipped with the "Kestrel" wide-area scanning sensor from Logos Technologies and the Wescam sensor from L-3 Communications, which provides narrower range multi-imaging.

II. Is the Price Right?

Equipped with sophisticated video and infrared sensors, the blimps cost the DOD between $1M USD and $5M USD, according to The Wall Street Journal (officially the cost and configurations are classified).  But if the CBP and DHS enjoy their free trial, they can pick up virtually the whole fleet for $27M USD.

But the CBP says it is wary of jumping in too fast.  It's still reeling from the DHS's decision to pull the controversial billion dollar "electric fence" initiative, which would have used cameras, radar, and other devices to create a wireless sensor network spanning the entire border.

The 2011 Congressional budget for the DHS [PDF] allocated $9.8B USD to the CBP, of which between $100M and $130M USD is reserved for equipment, according to a WSJ interview with Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner at the CBP's Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition.

The Aerostar in flight over Afghanistan in Sept. 2011. [Image Source: Reuters]

The Raven Industries Aerostar would be a deal in a way, but they would also drain between a third and fourth of the yearly equipment budget.  Thus the CBP is also considering alternatives.

It's already field testing modified Predator drones, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used extensively by the DOD.  Also on its radar is a rival blimp from TCOM LP of Columbia, Maryland.  The TCOM design is less expensive, but also less subtle -- it's tethered to the ground by a long communications cable.

But tests of both the TCOM blimp and the Raven Industries design are still in progress in east Texas, with the CBP uncertain whether they will be a good fit.  After all, illegal entrants into the country operate in a rather different fashion than Afghani insurgents, and there's substantial differences in the desert landscape as well.

III. Border Policing, Domestic Surveillance are Topics Mired in Controversy

As the DHS steps up its surveillance efforts, there are also tough questions regarding this form of ubiquitous government surveillance.  Some fear the U.S. descending further into a "police state" in which armed flyers and floaters are used to spy on and assault people in urban and suburban America.

And then there's the issue of the enforcement itself.  At 1,969 miles [source] the U.S.-Mexican border is an enforcer's nightmare.  

The issue of illegal immigration has historically been, and is today a hyper-politicized issue, and in an election year tensions are running high.  The only alleviating factor is a surprising reverse migration of immigrants (legal and illegal) returning back to Mexico due to the lack of jobs in America, according to the Pew Hispanic Center [source].

Even with the ebb of net immigration, the flow of unauthorized Mexican nationals adds yet another persistent wrinkle -- the "War on Drugs", first declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971.

In many ways the War on Drugs has earned a place among America's numerous historic overseas conflicts in terms of cost and destruction.  To date it has drained over $1T USD [source].  

Marijuana Mexico
Mexico provides the majority of U.S. marijuana. [Image Source: AFP]

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that many tons of marijuana are smuggled across the Mexican border per year.  It labels Mexico as the biggest source of marijuana in the U.S., where cultivation is illegal despite being agriculturally viable.

In 2011 the nation budgeted an estimated $15.5B USD [source] to the U.S. Drug Czar to perpetuate this domestic "War" -- 31 times the inflation-adjusted budget Nixon devoted.  Much of the war involved banning the most used illegal drug -- marijuana, a drug top physicians say is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.  Approximately half of U.S. drug arrests are attributable to marijuana possession.

Experts estimate that the U.S. loses almost $50B USD [source] in potential tax revenue by outlawing marijuana -- roughly $2T USD over the forty years of the war on drugs.  Combined with the net cost, that works out to roughly $3T USD -- enough to pay off a third of the U.S. national debt [source].

IV. Members of Congress Critical of DHS Spending

Some like Texas Rep. Ron Paul (R), who have a front row view of the immigration debate and "War on Drugs" have advocated decriminalizing marijuana.  Rep. Paul is quoted as saying, "And marijuana - I think it's tragic what's happening today in the drug war. Since the early '70s we've spent maybe $200 to $300 billion on the drug war. That's not been any good. This whole effort on the drug war doesn't make any sense at all to me."

Ron Paul
Rep. Ron Paul says spending billions to "fight" a domestic "War on Drugs" is unconstitutional.
[Image Source: AP]

Rep. Paul also supports disbanding the DHS, which at $53B USD constituted approximately 1.4 percent of the $3.83T USD spent by the Obama administration in 2011.

Amid all the controversy -- the war on drugs, the war on illegal immigration, domestic surveillance and the police state -- one perpetual criticism of the blimp --er-- aerostat is easy to lay to rest: "But what if they're shot."

Raven Industries CEO Dan Rykhus comments, "We actually like when they [insurgents] try to shoot at them as there's technology on the blimp that allows us to train the camera on the source of that gunfire."

The aerostats are at near equal-pressure, which means the pressure on the inside of the blimp is almost the same as on the outside.  What that means is that if they are hit, the helium inside won't rush out.

In other words, while buying the blimps may draw the ire of some fiscal conservatives, don't accuse the floaters of being gun fodder for drug traffickers.

Sources: Raven Aerostar, WSJ

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RE: P214
By MrBlastman on 8/16/2012 1:04:38 PM , Rating: 2
Mexico's problems aren't our own. Have you looked at our National debt lately? We have no business trying to fix their problems.

What we can do is give current immigrants a path to legality--and at the same time... force them to pay taxes while on it... which will increase the revenue our government receives to help pay down that debt.

Also, this incentive is a one shot deal. It could be coupled with immigration reform making it more desirable and attainable for those south of our border to attempt to reach. We sorely need immigration reform in a positive way.

RE: P214
By Apone on 8/16/2012 1:25:19 PM , Rating: 3
@ RufusM and Mr. Blastman

I agree but the issue is that many foreigners are brainwashed into thinking that "America, the land of opportunity!" is synonymous with "if I come here, I'll be spoonfed the opportunity and can flourish by being complacent" which unfortunately is not true.

This is the amnesty argument: We can't get rid of them so let's let them all stay and legalize it. This is an incentive that encourages illegal immigration.

And this is exactly why I'm not a fan of Obama immigration reform attempts or California Governor Jerry Brown's DREAM Act. Where are the incentives to all of us former immigrants who worked our fingers to the bone coming to the States legally, integrating into the culture, and making it on our own without any help? Is Uncle Sam (or California) going to reimburse me for my undergrad and grad school loans under the DREAM Act?

RE: P214
By RufusM on 8/16/2012 1:31:23 PM , Rating: 3
Amnesty is never a one time thing. The US will get a flood of illegal immigrants when word gets out that it's coming. After amnesty takes effect, that won't stop anyone from continuing to come here illegally. The same problems will still exist and we'll need another amnesty down the road, continuing the cycle.

While there are many illegal who would pay taxes, there are many who would go on entitlement programs so it's not the revenue boon you think it is. Plus it will also attract criminals looking to do business here in the US so there will be more dollars spent on those people. There's just no way to sort the good illegal immigrants from the bad illegal immigrants and the political parties here in the US would never let you give amnesty to some and not to others.

Granted, it's a complex problem but I think Mexico's problem IS our problem since their population is coming to the US in droves. Why not reduce the dollars we spend overseas and spend some getting Mexico in line since it impacts the US? There are plenty of military bases we can cut. For all of the dollars the US has wasted just in Iraq, we could have done a lot to help this problem.

RE: P214
By MrBlastman on 8/16/2012 1:58:26 PM , Rating: 2
Amnesty is never a one time thing. The US will get a flood of illegal immigrants when word gets out that it's coming.

This is why you don't announce it prior to passing. You just do it. One day you come out and say:

"Hey, if you can prove you've worked here x number of years with community references and are currently living here on this day, you've got a shot."

It isn't perfect, but it's better than nothing.

Why not reduce the dollars we spend overseas and spend some getting Mexico in line since it impacts the US?

If people think we spend too much on the war on drugs here in the United States, wait until they try and spend money taking down Mexican drug cartels. Whole cities are routinely massacred in Mexico. It's horrifying.

Thanks but no thanks. Until the Mexican government proves that they can seize control of their own country, pouring money into them is as pointless as sending it to Africa.

RE: P214
By Reclaimer77 on 8/16/2012 2:53:24 PM , Rating: 3
Whole cities are routinely massacred in Mexico. It's horrifying.

Yes, now with weapons straight up GIVEN to them by Holder and Obama!

RE: P214
By Apone on 8/16/2012 3:11:30 PM , Rating: 2
This is why you don't announce it prior to passing. You just do it.

Trust me, you don't have to announce it. News like that spreads ridiculously fast throughout the immigrant community between the U.S. and countries with immigrants looking to come over.

The other issue that immigrants are continuing to exploit is attempting to find, build a relationship with, and eventually marry a U.S. citizen so they can get instant citizenship themselves. It's happening right now to a friend of mine who met his now-spouse on Facebook and it's confusing because we don't know if she truly loves him or married him (ridiculously quickly) to satisfy her agenda (marry a citizen => U.S. citizenship => access to benefits such as my friend's Army G.I. Bill to fund her college education, etc.).

Now my friend's new wife is attempting to set me up with her many single friends from abroad but it's not gonna' happen as I fancy American girls!

RE: P214
By Reclaimer77 on 8/16/12, Rating: 0
RE: P214
By Aenslead on 8/18/2012 1:32:43 AM , Rating: 2
Dear MrBlastman,

Though I completely agree with many of the points you've written, I must disagree with you on this one. Being Mexican and living in one of the most violent cities in the country, I can definitely say: yes, Mexico's problems are yours, because the drug issue is none other than the US' (note I call your country United States, and not 'America', the name of our continent).

"Fast and Furious" only shed some light in what we all knew - US Government is involved in delivering cartels with weapons and ammunition. The currency cartels use around here are US Dollars. It is because the US is the biggest drug consumer of marijuana and cocaine that we have the security issue at hand. Righteous politicians and media calling Mexico a problem, when your very government is feeding that same issue and pretending to help through "Plan Mérida".

Our problem would not exist if it was not because of the high level of drug addicts your country has and the large sums of un-taxed money that moves through the borders. Where do you think all this cash goes to?

And forgive me for being skeptical, but I highly doubt those balloons you guys just paid a couple of millions for are to stop illegal immigrants.

We are, after all, victims of the US' business practices.

"Spreading the rumors, it's very easy because the people who write about Apple want that story, and you can claim its credible because you spoke to someone at Apple." -- Investment guru Jim Cramer

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