SMART Wall Bill Intends to Bring 21st Century Tech to Border Security

Texas Rep's bill would secure border using sensors, computer science

A wall is seen along the border between the United States and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico

A wall is seen along the border between the United States and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico / Getty Images

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President Donald Trump took to Twitter Thursday to explain that his vision of a border wall with Mexico—a key feature of his winning 2016 campaign—did not necessarily mean a physical barrier along the entirety of the border.

"The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it. Parts will be, of necessity, see through and it was never intended to be built in areas where there is natural protection such as mountains, wastelands or tough rivers or water," Trump wrote.

One Republican, Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, is ready with a plan to create such a "see through" solution to border security. Hurd's bill, the Secure Miles with All Resources and Technology (SMART) Act, is meant to apply 21st century technology to the problem of keeping the border secure.

"We can't double down on a Third Century approach to solve 21st Century problems if we want a viable long-term solution," Hurd said at the bill's roll-out in July.

In lieu of an end-to-end concrete barrier, the bill would charge the Department of Homeland Security with deploying a variety of technologies to police the border, including RADAR, vehicle-mounted devices, sensors, unmanned cameras, and UAVs.

This, Hurd told the Washington Free Beacon, would be both more effective and less of a drain on the taxpayer's pocket. He suggested that estimates peg the cost of the "smart wall" at around half a million dollars per mile of border, as compared against 24.5 million dollars for a 30-foot, concrete barrier. As for its effectiveness, Hurd argues that the vast expanses surrounding the border mean that a physical border wall would, in many places, not really be all that useful.

"When a border patrol agent's response time is measured in hours to days, a wall is not a physical barrier, so you've got to have another way in order to watch that," he said.

Hurd's district, Texas's 23rd, covers a broad swath of southwestern Texas and over a third of the nearly 2000 mile border between the United States and Mexico.

"I'm on the border a lot. I spend time with border patrol agent and local law enforcement and ranchers," Hurd explained.

He's also one of five members of Congress with a computer science background, alongside Reps. Ted Lieu (D., Calif.), Bill Johnson (R., Ohio), Steve Scalise (R., La.), and Jacky Rosen (D., Nev.) This combination of skills and responsibility meant Hurd noticed the problem with the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agent's current, woefully inadequate technology.

"One of the things that you find out real quickly is, many of our men and women in border patrol, their push-to-talk radios don't always work, because you don't have the telephone infrastructure. Their cell phones don't work in all these places. And when they do have some of the high-speed, low-drag cameras that can see far, it requires a PhD in computer science in order to operate it. I would have assumed that we're utilizing some of the latest technology along the border and we're not," he said.

The alternative Hurd envisions involves a system of sensors—cameras, RADAR, LIDAR, etc.—which beam information back to CBP. That would help to alleviate a serious blindness when it comes to managing the enormous border region.

"There is nothing right now, if the Secretary of DHS wanted to know, ‘what's happening at this mile marker right now,' there's nothing there. You can't do that! You can't do that for every part of the border," Hurd said.

CBP agents could use the collected data to make informed enforcement decisions, targeting their activity to track border crossers rather than patrolling the border at random.

"We should be able to tell the difference between a person and a bunny rabbit coming across the border," Hurd said. "If we see a person or a threat, you should be able to track that threat, whether it's with cameras or deploy a small drone to track it, and then you're able to deploy your support resource, the men and women in border patrol, in order to interdict, in order to stop that threat."

Hurd did make clear that portions of the border would still need a physical barrier—his goal is to adapt each sector of the border based on its unique security needs. But that wall would not be the 2000 mile behemoth envisioned by some border hawks.

"There's parts of the border where a physical barrier makes sense. But it's not sea to shining sea. But I think it's only a handful. I think we should be talking about dozens of miles, not hundreds of miles," he said.

Hurd thinks that his plan, if implemented, would be ready to go in less than a year. He predicts that we would establish "operational control" of the border by 2020.

The bill has the backing of border patrol agents too. Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council (which serves as a union for CBP), called on Congress to pass the bill without delay, saying that it "will help our agents counter the sophisticated international drug cartels that poison our communities with meth, heroin, and other dangerous drugs."

It remains unclear if Hurd's bill will make it into any final immigration deal. Details of at least one DREAM Act proposal, posted by a Politico reporter, mention components of the SMART Act in CBP oversight measures. And it's a key component of Hurd's proposed border security/DACA fix, the U.S.A. Act, which he and Rep. Pete Aguilar (D., Calif.) announced earlier this month and rolled out on Tuesday.

"This is a border security fix and a DACA fix, and I think this is something that should be used as a foundation for negotiations on this topic," Hurd said of the U.S.A. Act. "And I think it also proves that Republicans and Democrats are willing to work together, and I hope this is just the beginning."

Charles Fain Lehman

Charles Fain Lehman   Email Charles | Full Bio | RSS
Charles Fain Lehman is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. He writes about policy, covering crime, law, drugs, immigration, and social issues. Reach him on twitter (@CharlesFLehman) or by email at lehman@freebeacon.com.

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