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$90b spent on border security, with mixed results

It cost $110 million to deploy 1,200 National Guard troops for one year along the US-Mexican border. It cost $110 million to deploy 1,200 National Guard troops for one year along the US-Mexican border. (John Moore/ Getty Images)
By Martha Mendoza
Associated Press / June 26, 2011

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HIDALGO, Texas — As Congress debates border funding and governors demand more aid to curb illegal immigration and other problems, government records show that taxpayers have spent $90 billion over 10 years to secure the US-Mexican border.

The Associated Press tallied the combined costs using White House budgets, reports obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, and congressional transcripts.

Among the expenses:

■ Deployment of 1,200 National Guard soldiers for one year: $110 million

■ One rail cargo X-ray screening machine: $1.75 million

■ Average annual salary of a Customs and Border Protection officer: $75,000

■ Cost of a drug-searching dog: $4,500

For taxpayers footing these bills, the returns have been mixed: fewer illegal immigrants but little impact on the terrorism issue, and no stoppage of the drug supply, officials said.

The terrorists who carried out the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, did not come from Mexico, but 9/11 led politicians to reexamine border security. Ten days later, President Bush announced a new Department of Homeland Security, with tasks including the security of the nation’s porous southern border.

Over the next 10 years, annual border spending tripled as the United States built an unprecedented network along the 1,900-mile border with Mexico: 165 truck and train X-ray machines; 650 miles of heavy-duty fences and sheer concrete walls; twice as many law enforcement officers along the entire stretch; and a small fleet of Predator drones.

The program also includes remote surveillance cameras, thermal imaging devices, and partly buried ground sensors that sound an alarm at headquarters if someone steps on one in the desert.

“Our obligation to secure our borders involves a responsibility to do so in the most cost-effective way possible, and we recognize that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to meet our border security needs,’’ said Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler.

Over the years, the goals of the border security measures have shifted.

Early concerns that terrorists could sneak weapons into the United States from Mexico were later overshadowed by worries about violent drug cartels slaughtering people across the Rio Grande. As the US economy faltered, preventing illegal immigrants from sneaking north for jobs became the focus.

“Border security is no longer just about responding to 9/11. It became very much a part of the immigration debate,’’ said Jena Baker McNeill, homeland security policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington.

Indeed, stopping immigrants at the border has become a bargaining tool for the last two administrations with Congress — fences and guards in exchange for reforming immigration laws, she said.

The buildup has dramatically reduced illegal immigration. Ten years ago, border agents caught 1.6 million illegal immigrants in one year. Last year they caught 463,000. The drop is attributed in part to the US recession, which decreased jobs, but it is also an indication, according to federal officials, that fewer people are attempting to cross the border illegally.

But the spending has not worked to stop the flow of illegal drugs. Last year, border guards seized a record 254,000 pounds of cocaine, 3.6 million pounds of marijuana, and 4,200 pounds of heroin. In response, Mexico’s cartel bosses simply sent more: trainloads of marijuana, cocaine stuffed in fenders and dashboards, heroin packed into young men’s shoes.

An estimated 660,000 pounds of cocaine, 44,000 pounds of heroin, and 220,000 pounds of methamphetamine are on American streets in a given year, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

A fraction of that amount is seized at the border, a small operating cost for Mexico’s drug lords, who will reap an estimated $25 billion this year from US sales.

Last month, a Justice Department study reviewing the total cost of illicit drug use in the United States, using cost-of-illness studies, federal crime and caseload statistics, and economic models, came up with a figure of $193 billion per year.

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