The president’s overwhelming desire to build a wall on the southern border has focused attention on federal spending on border security in recent years. This includes spending on technology, on law enforcement agents, and on physical barriers. As budget watchdogs, we’ve been writing about this spending, the failure of these programs, and the wasted tax dollars they’ve left behind for many years.
The formation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), shortly after the terror attacks in September of 2001, turned on the spigot of dollars sent to contractors to figure out how to secure the borders of the country. To be clear, we are firm believers in border control. But we also have a long history of documenting and publicizing wasteful government spending. And there has been plenty of waste to document on these programs. That is why we recently did a deeper dive in to some prime examples of wasteful border spending. Looking back at the last decade or so of “border security” spending, it’s a tale of cost overruns, inefficiencies, duplication, profiteering, and other forms of waste.
Diminishing Returns of Physical Barriers
Keep in mind that there have been physical barriers, fences and walls, on various parts of our southern border for decades. Some portions of the border are not suitable for physical barriers and DHS looked for methods of “virtual” fencing along those portions. The idea was to use technology via cameras and sensors to keep an eye on those portions of the border where law enforcement was scarce and fences impractical.
Now, think about what kind of mobile phone you were toting around in 2004. How much has the technology in your phone evolved since then? A lot, right? And the same thing was true of the technologies involved in the virtual fence. First, sometimes the contractor’s choices were not the best and the chosen technologies didn’t work well in inclement weather. Second, this technology was evolving at hyper speed and the cumbersome federal procurement system couldn’t keep up. That’s a recipe for waste.
And these profligate practices have continued with the White House asking for more and more resources for border security even as the incidence of illegal alien apprehensions has declined.
Walls Don’t Stop Visa Overstays
The focus on the physical barriers and surveillance systems also does little to address the biggest group of unauthorized immigrants: people who overstay their visas. But walls and drones make for better TV than figuring out how to better track visa holders. (DHS has already wasted billions of dollars over more than a decade failing to do that as part of US-VISIT).
To put President Trump’s desire for $25 billion in immediate spending on the border wall in perspective, the entire annual DHS budget request for Fiscal Year 2019 is less than $60 billion. So $25 billion would be a big bite out of that.
We have long said that the proposal for a wall is all addressing a political promise, not solving an immigration or security problem. Of course we should keep our borders secure, but we should also make sure that we are investing in strategies that are effective and that are directly related (and proportional) to the problem. And we should make sure that once a decision is made to invest dollars, we are making sure we are getting our money’s worth as opposed to allowing costs to grown unchecked.
Lack of Oversight Leads to Waste
Given the history, it is particularly troubling that the current proposals seem to repeat the mistakes of accelerating contracts and decreasing oversight. And waste is sure to follow. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice – or X times, shame on me.
Tracking wasteful spending is a big part of what we do at Taxpayers for Common Sense. With the beginning of Fiscal Year 2019 just weeks away the time is ripe for fiscal shenanigans and backroom deal making to forestall a government shutdown. We’ll be watching to see if more money for a border wall is in play.