Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has told Congress that combatting drones is a top priority, yet his new budget cancels funding to develop the Border Patrol’s capabilities to detect and derail cartel-operated drones at the border.
Cartels use drones to smuggle in drugs and to keep eyes on Customs and Border Protection’s operations along the U.S.-Mexico boundary, probing to find unprotected areas where they can sneak people or other contraband across.
Congress last year allocated $5.3 million to CBP for its Counter Unmanned Aircraft Systems program, but President Biden’s new budget zeroes out that money.
In its budget justification, CBP said it never asked for the money in the first place and its proposed cut “rebalances the request” and uses the money for other Border Patrol priorities.
That’s not sitting well with members of Congress.
“There’s not a single dollar in the CBP request to counter the small drones that the cartels are flying across the border to conduct surveillance on our agents and deliver drug loads,” Rep. John Rutherford told acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller during a recent hearing.
In a follow-up statement to The Washington Times, the Florida Republican ticked off numbers showing the growing threat drones pose.
“Yet, President Biden eliminates funding for this important border security system in his FY 2024 budget,” the congressman said. “It is one of the many budget gimmicks used by President Biden, where he says one thing but does another.”
CBP said in a statement that the cut in funding doesn’t mean they don’t take the drone threat seriously.
“Procurement processes for additional Counter-UAS systems are ongoing, utilizing previously appropriated funds; and the agency will continue to leverage its authorities and available funds to do this important work,” the agency said.
Mr. Mayorkas has personally warned Congress about the danger drones pose to the U.S. domestically.
“These drones can fly farther, faster, have greater visibility, carry heavier loads. And they are being used by individuals with nefarious intent as well as by adverse nation states. And we need to have the capability to counter the use of drones,” he said.
He said Congress has given Homeland Security significant authority to bring down drones that pose a threat to security, but he said those powers need to be renewed and expanded.
The drone threat at the border is particularly sobering.
In testimony earlier this year to Congress, the Border Patrol’s chief agent in southern Texas said the agency saw more than 10,000 incursions over the boundary with Mexico in 2022.
Drones help the cartels control the territory directly south of the border and track Border Patrol movements. That gives the cartels intelligence on when the best time is to smuggle high-value contraband across.
In budget data provided to Congress, CBP said its counter-drone program “mitigated” 25 drones in fiscal year 2022, and had mitigated another 15 through the first four months of fiscal year 2023. That’s a tiny fraction of the cross-border activity.
Mitigation usually means hijacking the radio frequency an operator is using to fly a drone and bringing it down.
CBP did credit its counter-drone strategy with helping agents seize 553 pounds of narcotics and arrest 1,490 people in the early months of fiscal year 2023.
When they spot drones, Border Patrol agents can use them to try to sniff out illegal activity.
As one agent described to a judge in making an arrest: “Alien smuggling organizations regularly use drones to conduct aerial surveillance ahead of trafficked aliens and/or narcotics to circumvent law enforcement positions.”
But that means when agents spot the drones, they also know where to position themselves to try to nab whatever the smugglers are bringing through.
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