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Obama Wants Drones to Be Part of Border Migration Solution

An unmanned drone used to patrol the U.S.-Canadian border.

An unmanned drone used to patrol the U.S.-Canadian border. // U.S. Customs and Border Protection/AP File Photo

President Barack Obama today requested $39 million for aerial surveillance, including unmanned aircraft operations, as part of an effort to systemically take care of what he called an urgent humanitarian situation. 

The emergency funding would go toward 16,526 additional drone and manned aircraft flight hours for border surveillance, and 16 additional drone crews to better detect and stop illegal activity, according to administration officials.  

There currently is a flood of unaccompanied children, and adults with children, illegally crossing the border to escape violence and poverty in Central American communities.

The remotely-piloted jets would not be deployed to look for these migrants, who are out in the open and turning themselves in. Rather, the drones would try to detect drug smugglers, human traffickers and others attempting to evade the law.

The agency’s “unmanned and manned aircraft can continue to support ongoing border security operations, specifically regarding the tracking of illegal cross-border smuggling operations,” a CBP official told Nextgov on Tuesday.   

Obama is asking for $3.7 billion total to deal with migrants and border security problems. 

"This funding would support a sustained border security surge through enhanced domestic enforcement, including air surveillance," Obama wrote Tuesday in a letter to House Speaker Rep. John Boehner. The money also would help cover the cost of returning migrants, speeding immigration court cases and addressing the root causes of migration. 



CBP in the past has struggled to maintain and fly its fleet of 10 drones. 

In January, an unmanned jet went down off the California coast after experiencing a mechanical failure. A crew brought it down, after determining there was no way to return the drone to its launch point in Sierra Vista, Arizona. The agency then decided to ground the entire fleet as a precaution. 

A Department of Homeland Security inspector general in 2012 reprimanded CBP for letting drones sit idle 63 percent of the time they should have been airborne.

The fleet of then-seven drones flew 3,909 hours annually, but should have been up at least 10,662 hours yearly, according to the IG’s calculations. With three additional vehicles, the fleet put in 5,100 hours during fiscal 2013, officials said in January. CBP spent $55.3 million for aircraft operations and maintenance between 2006 and 2011.

Separately, Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, has asked Congress this year for more money, drones and ships to combat the flow of illegal drugs, weapons and people from Central America. He told Nextgov's sister publication DefenseOne "the near collapse of societies in the hemisphere with the associated drug and [undocumented immigrant] flow" is an "existential" threat to the United States. But his request for military funding is unlikely to be met.

Some House lawmakers Tuesday rejected Obama's new plan for leaving out certain law enforcement measures. 

"President Obama has many tools at his disposal now to quell this activity at our southern border, such as enforcing immigration laws and cracking down on rampant asylum fraud," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said in a statement. "Unfortunately, none of these tools are mentioned in his proposal."

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