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National Perspective | IMMIGRATION

Electronic Wall Going Up Along the Borders

March 17, 1998|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Along the country's borders, the Clinton administration is building a bridge to the 21st century that officials hope no one will be able to cross.

It's a bridge of high-tech probes and scopes, laser beams and long-range lenses. The bricks are infrared sensors, night-vision goggles and thermal cameras; the mortar is computer chips, mapping software and global satellite systems. There is even a camera that looks like a rock.

Even as patrols are beefed up--the number of agents is expected to swell from 3,965 in 1993 to nearly 8,000 by the end of this year--officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service are plotting a $300-million technology overhaul that would create an "electronic wall" along the border. This year's budget blueprint calls for about $13 million in improvements.

Border Patrol agents make about 700 arrests per officer annually in some areas--far above the average, for example, of 18 arrests per officer in New York City and 12 in Washington, D.C. New technology, much of it borrowed from the military, is intended to help ease that burden, officials said. "Clearly it's overwhelming," said Walt Drabik, chief of electronic systems for the INS.

Among the new gizmos:

REMOTE VIDEO SURVEILLANCE SITES

Atop 60-foot poles of reinforced steel would sit four bulletproof cameras, controllable from Border Patrol offices miles away. On each side would be a daytime color camera with a range of up to 5 miles and a thermal imager that picks up body heat as far as 1 1/2 miles away in the deepest darkness--as well as at dusk and dawn, times that are particularly difficult for viewing.

The cameras would operate in conjunction with 10,000 underground sensors the INS already has in place. The sensors--some seismic, some vehicular and some infrared--detect all nearby movement, often triggering unnecessary deployment of agents when dogs or coyotes tramp by. In the San Diego area, for example, the 1,200 sensors are sometimes triggered up to 1 million times a day.

With the remote video surveillance, or RVS, dispatchers could focus the cameras onto locations where sensors were tripped and determine whether the alarm is false before sending agents to the scene.

Plans call for 600 sites, with 400 along the Mexican border. There would be 62 poles stretching east from the Pacific Ocean to where Interstate 8 dips down toward the border.

Cost: $250,000 each.

THERMAL INFRARED IMAGER

Dubbed R2D2 for its resemblance to the "Star Wars" character, this is a night-vision device that senses body heat up to a half-mile away. They are placed atop Border Patrol vehicles, with monitors inside the cars for easy viewing. A joystick controls the 360-degree movement of the lens.

R2D2s may also be used atop the remote video surveillance sites. INS officials want 1,000 of them.

"Five miles is five miles. Three miles is three miles. Ultimately, you have to get out of the vehicle and locate them [suspected illegal border-crossers] on foot," Drabik explained. "This locates them on foot. This will get you to them much closer."

Officials test-drove the imager--Texas Instruments calls its version the Night Sight--in Tucson recently, plugging it into the cigarette lighter of an agent's pickup truck.

"They had to call a bus. They had 50 illegals in an hour," Drabik recalled. "They wouldn't let us take it back."

Cost: $8,500 each.

LONG-RANGE INFRARED SYSTEM

Drabik's deputy, Mark Walker, calls these "the Cadillac of infrared cameras," with the ability to locate a rabbit or other wildlife three to five miles away. A mobile unit, agents can take the LORIS into the field with them and prop it onto a tripod or their vehicle. But they are heavy--35 pounds.

Operational since 1992, the INS loaned LORIS cameras to the FBI during the 81-day standoff with the Montana "freemen" in 1996. The INS has about 200 of them in the field, 45 in San Diego. Plans call for buying only a handful more because the RVS cameras would largely supplant LORIS units.

Cost: $40,000 each.

FIBER-OPTIC BORESCOPE

Constructed of a black tube, about 8 inches long and 2 inches in diameter, attached to up to 20 feet of a braided metal hose, the scope lets agents peer into gas tanks, glove compartments and other small crevices in search of narcotics or other contraband. The scope uses a non-electric light source to avoid combustion and can be maneuvered simply with two knobs near the eyepiece. It is similar to a medical scope used to look inside the human body.

"Half an hour after they unpacked them at Marfa [Texas], they had two major drug busts," Drabik said.

There are about a dozen such scopes in use along the Southwest border, including one at the San Clemente inspection site. INS officials want 100.

Cost: about $14,000 each.

NIGHT VISION GOGGLES

The new generation of these glasses would double the vision capacity from the current goggles. "The difference in technology is a quantum leap," according to Walker.

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