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Virtual border fence: Still a failure

Our Governor in action.

Gov. Rick Perry’s border Web camera program has run out of money, and in its first full year of operation failed to meet nearly every law enforcement goal.

Last year, Perry gave the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition a $2 million federal grant to install cameras along the U.S.-Mexico border and broadcast the footage live over the Internet. An internal report showed that a fraction of the 200 cameras Perry wanted on the border were installed, and that Internet border patrollers produced a handful of drug busts and a scattering of arrests.


Perry is seeking another $2 million to prop up the project that was supposed to become self-sustaining. After being shown a report that indicated the cameras fell far short of their goals, Perry’s staff produced a new, revised report that put the program in a more positive light.

The grant that financed the program has expired, and the sheriffs coalition says that without more funding, the cameras will go dark.

The first thing you need to know is that this was a federal grant that paid for those cameras. Darn that fascistic federal government and its dirty, dirty money! I mean, if we know one thing right now it’s that Republican governors just can’t handle temptation.

Original goals for the program were unrealistic, said sheriffs coalition executive director Don Reay. He said the cameras have been a success.

“We’re hoping there will be a new (grant) offered for next year,” he said.

In its first full year, the camera Web site drew more than 39 million hits and caught the attention of national and international media.
But interviews and reports the El Paso Times obtained indicate the nearly 125,000 “virtual Texas deputies” registered on the site led law enforcement to just eight drug busts and 11 arrests.


The sheriffs coalition was to install 200 cameras, but only 17 were up and running. That’s about one camera for every 70 miles of the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border.

The cameras were expected to generate 1,200 arrests. The sheriffs coalition reported 11.

Internet border watchers’ reports led to the referral of about 300 undocumented immigrants to U.S. Border Patrol officials. That was about 6 percent of the 4,500 referrals the program was expected to generate.

Reay explained the gap between the objectives and the results in this response on the report: “Original goals were not realistic. Problems encountered was an element of the press who did everything within their power to negate the problem (sic).”

Boy, if only being a naysayer granted the power to negate problems! I’d be, like, a superhero or something by now.

After questions about results in the year-end report and whether funding would be renewed for the cameras, Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger produced a different report.

The newly produced report showed objectives radically reduced from the original goals.

Instead of 200 cameras, it said the sheriffs coalition was expected to install only 15, making it appear as if the group exceeded its goals by installing 17 cameras.

The target number of arrests was revised downward from 1,200 to 25, much closer to the 11 arrests the sheriffs coalition actually made.

The original objectives, Cesinger said, were supposed to have been revised after a six-month progress report earlier this year showed the program was far from meeting its targets. There was some sort of “glitch” in the reporting process, she said.

If at first you don’t succeed, lower your standards. That could be Rick Perry’s campaign slogan. I must note that they did tell us that they intended to define success down six months ago, so we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Despite the small number of arrests, the few cameras installed and the failure of the program to become self-sustaining, Cesinger said, Perry was convinced the program deterred crime and should be funded again.

“The bad guys know there are an extra pair eyes on the border,” she said.


University of Texas at El Paso anthropology Professor Josiah Heyman, a border expert, called the Texas Border Watch program “expensive and dumb.”

Seventeen cameras on the vast expanse of borderland between Mexico and Texas, he said, would do little to stop the illegal flow of drugs and people into the United States.

“The cameras out in open country are just completely a distraction from the elephant in the room,” Heyman said.

Most contraband that enters the country, he said, comes through the ports of entry. The backpacks and Hummers full of drugs that come through the brush country between the ports are small potatoes compared with the semi-trucks and train cars loaded down with drugs and people that often make it through the complex and overloaded land port security system.

“Two million dollars would be a drop in the bucket, but it would be an a lot more effective drop in the bucket if it was focused on ports of entry instead of wide-open spaces,” Heyman said.

The irony of all this, of course, is that Rick Perry is the first in line to call all kinds of government spending “wasteful”. It’s just that by some strange coincidence, the things that he considers wasteful are all programs he doesn’t like. Here we have convincing empirical evidence that this is a wasteful program, one that doesn’t come close to meeting the goals that were set for it, and by spending money on this program we’re not spending an equivalent amount on something else that actually would be effective. But it’s something that Rick Perry likes, for whatever the reason, and so he wants to keep shoveling money into it, convinced that it can work better if we just keep trying. You really couldn’t come up with a better illustration of the emptiness of “wasteful government spending” rhetoric if you tried.

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