SAN ANTONIO — The smell of money was in the air at the 2017 Border Security Expo, the annual gathering of private firms, contractors and government officials who make their living beefing up the nation’s borders.
With President Donald Trump pushing for billions of new dollars in Department of Homeland Security funding, there is opportunity to be found along the U.S.-Mexico border in a way that didn’t exist during the last eight years under the Obama administration.
“We’ve been working for years to break in with Border Patrol,” said Tony Chiarulli, technical director of New Jersey-based L-3 Communication Systems, which was at the expo hoping to sell its unattended ground sensors. Such sensors are big business inside the Border Patrol, but Chiarulli said the agency hasn’t had funding in previous years for upgrades.
“The hope with the new administration is that new money will be flowing into Border Patrol, which will mean new opportunities for other vendors to get in. This should be an opportunity to get our foot in the door,” Chiarulli said.
Chiarulli and most of the other vendors gathered at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center this week have little worry that they will be squeezed out by Trump’s planned border wall, for which the president has requested $4.1 billion. While initial Department of Homeland Security plans called for enough new wall to effectively seal the entire border, in recent days administration officials have scaled back the wall plans, especially in Texas, where the natural border of the Rio Grande greatly complicates wall building.
A conference accompanying the expo drew a number of well-placed federal officials, including Randolph Alles, the acting deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, who said the agency is conducting a “gap analysis” to see where a new physical barrier should go.
“We’ll put the wall where it makes sense,” said Alles, adding that the first locations for new wall construction are slated to be near San Diego and in the Rio Grande Valley.
And, in a clarification sure to warm the hearts of vendors in the exhibition hall, he added: “Any physical barrier will have to be augmented by technology.”
“It’s going to be an electronic wall as well,” Chiarulli predicted. “There’s your opportunity.”
Locals are losing
During the two-day expo, vendors showed off all manner of military-themed gadgetry, from cutting edge night-vision goggles and facial recognition technology to spy drones and long-range speakers that double as crowd dispersal devices.
Envisioning a market amid what’s expected to be a sharp increase in detained immigrants, David Chadwick, director of business development with New Hampshire-based Endur ID, was hoping his system of wristband IDs would appeal to Border Patrol officials seeking to keep better track of detainees. “We are presently using it in ICE detention centers, but it could also be used at the border,” Chadwick said. “Right now this is a hot spot. People feel money is going to be flowing into the border. The time is right.”
Chadwick said the color-coded wristbands could be used to keep families detained by Border Patrol from being mistakenly broken up and said bar codes on the wrist bands could keep track of everything from medications to release dates.
Michael Driskill with AAR Mobility Systems also saw opportunity in what’s expected to be an uptick in BorderPatrol activity. He was selling Space-Maxmobileshelters—foldable, portable buildings he said Border Patrol agents could use as temporary command centers in far-flung areas of the border after arresting immigrants.
In addition to billions for the border wall and other security enhancements, Trump is seeking billions to fund a huge hiring spree among immigration agents. He has directed the Department of Homeland Security to hire 5,000 new U.S. Border Patrol agents and 10,000 more agents for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which typically does immigration enforcement in the interior of the country.
But if there are some definite winners in the border security sweepstakes, there are also some losers. Seated at a panel on air and maritime interdiction of smugglers, a lone U.S. Coast Guard representative talked about the 200 metric tons of illegal drugs Coast Guard agents seized on the high seas last year. But with the Coast Guard facing deep cuts — 14 percent of its budget — he said modernizing the agency’s fleet becomes more difficult. “It takes all the pieces to do targeted enforcement,” Capt. Lee Mynatt said. “It’s part of a comprehensive effort.”
And border-area law enforcement officials complained that they are likewise being blocked from new federal funding, much of which is going to their backyards.
“I have 84 miles in my county with just one deputy,” said Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez of Val Verde County, home to the border city of Del Rio. Martinez said he receives about $800,000 per year in federal grants for local law enforcement, but must share it with neighboring agencies. “We can’t do a whole lot with what we’re given.”
Martinez said he is hopeful the federal government will also take feedback from local officials as it designs its new border security plan, whether it be on wall placement or advice on where to put high-tech sensors.
“It’s going to take us being at that table constantly to present the picture as it is,” he said.