A bipartisan proposal for immigration reform calls for beefing up the use of drones to spot illegal immigrants along the US-Mexico border. But before the machines are deployed, drone advocates need to prove they're effective, and also address concerns that they're another step in the direction of creating a total surveillance state.
The proposal, put forth by four Democrats and two Republicans, is a sweeping reform of immigration law. Part of the plan calls for increased use of drones to patrol the US's southwestern border. The legislators "plan to come out with a bill in March, after further negotiations on exact language," writes Elise Foley at the Huffington Post. "The drones are used to spot illegal border-crossers, not to shoot them down, but there are still some concerns about their use within the United States."
Details are sketchy, according to the Washington Times's Inside Politics blog:
The proposal doesn't say how many drones would be added to the federal fleet, but the reliance on drones could be problematic at a time when some in Congress are calling for a review of how law enforcement uses them...
[The] US Customs and Border Protection's current drone program is chaotic and the agency can't keep its drones flying at the rate it had promised.
The paper contends that the agency hasn't budgeted sufficient funds to repair broken drones.
The Huffington Post raised other objections. Drones are "faulty and overly expensive" border-watching tools, writes the Post's Matt Sledge. He cites a report from the Customs and Border Protection's own inspector general:
Following up on that report, an article by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that drones were sometimes stopped from taking off by high winds, and were much less productive than existing, manned planes like the P3 Orion.
"I liken it to using a Humvee as a taxicab," said David Olive, a principal at the lobbying firm Catalyst Partners and a one-time chief of staff for former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.). "You know what, it will work, it will do the job, but there are so many other things that will do the job better and cheaper."
The drone program isn't just faulty -- it's also dangerous, Sledge writes. A Predator crashed in Nogales, Ariz., narrowly missing a cluster of homes. The National Transportation Safety Board criticizes CBP for its management of the drone program.
And the drone program raises civil rights concerns: It could "could turn the border into a virtual military zone and threaten civil liberties," writes Sledge:
In 2011, American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Catherine Crump warned that expanded drone use without additional safeguards "could easily lead to police fishing expeditions and invasive, all-encompassing surveillance that would seriously erode the privacy that we have always had as Americans."
Border security is important, and it's great to see progress on immigration reform after decades of deadlock. But it's important to make sure that policy makers don't go for a technology quick-fix. Before expanding the nation's drone program, advocates need to demonstrate that drones are effective, safe, and respect civil liberties.
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— Mitch Wagner , Editor in Chief, Internet Evolution