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Border 'surge' plan would be financial bonanza for private firms

The $46-billion security package in the immigration bill would benefit aerospace, technology and security companies, as well as border states.

July 08, 2013|By Joseph Tanfani and Brian Bennett

General Atomics, which spent $2.5 million lobbying Congress last year and $720,000 in the first quarter this year, did not return multiple requests for comment.

The bill also requires the purchase of 15 Black Hawk helicopters from Connecticut-based Sikorsky Aircraft, along with six Vader radars, a drone-mounted radar system developed by Virginia-based Northrop Grumman to detect insurgents planting bombs in Afghanistan. Each Vader costs $9.3 million.

The border crackdown includes more than $50 million to increase prosecutions of border crossers in Arizona, and $50 million to reimburse other border states. Most immigration violators are sent to jails and detention facilities owned or run by private companies under contracts with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Marshals Service. Their role is likely to grow substantially.

Prosecution of more border crossers "would be a huge boon for the private companies," said Judith Greene, director of Justice Strategies, a nonprofit research group that is critical of the prison industry.

In Arizona, the immigration detention business is dominated by Corrections Corp. of America. The Tennessee-based company was paid $750 million under federal contracts last year, and spent more than $1 million to lobby officials in Washington, records show.

Steve Owen, a spokesman for CCA, said the company didn't lobby Congress for policies to increase the number of prisoners. "We certainly advocate for full funding of our contracts," Owen said.

Biometric companies have also lobbied in favor of the bill — and will profit if it passes.

Immigration agents check fingerprints to screen foreigners coming into the country, but no one checks travelers' fingerprints when they leave. Other biometric systems could include iris scans or facial recognition software.

Proponents say such scans would help identify those who overstayed their visas and remain in the country illegally. Critics say it might deter such people from leaving and facing possible prosecution. Airline executives say the extra screening would delay flights and inconvenience foreign visitors.

Senior Homeland Security Department officials say reconfiguring airports with fingerprint stations and installing a computerized system isn't worth the money since the current system — checking passport information and passenger lists — is more than 90% accurate and can be improved.

"It's very hard to justify the expenditure of $7 billion," said a senior Homeland Security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the issue is before Congress.

But the biometric industry lobbied authors of the Senate bill, saying immigration officials were working from outdated estimates and that the cost would be much lower.

"We are trying to give them as much data as they need to show it's affordable and it's feasible and it would be effective," said Daniel Vassy, president of MorphoTrak, which manufactures the equipment. "And we have spent considerable energy to tell them that."

A spokesman for Accenture, a Virginia-based company that has received $508 million in contracts since 2004 for the system used to fingerprint arriving foreign visitors, posted a paper on its website arguing that a biometric exit system is necessary for immigration reform.

"So the question isn't whether to implement an exit program. It's how. Accenture can help," it reads.

In the end, it wasn't a hard sell. Senators rejected a proposal to require fingerprinting at all airports and seaports, but approved an amendment by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) to install the system within two years at the nation's 10 busiest airports for international travel, and later expand it across the country.

"There are some members of Congress who are just obsessed" with biometric exit systems, said Paul Rosenzweig, a former Homeland Security deputy assistant secretary for policy who now heads a consulting company. "The private sector guys on the sidelines are more than happy to make money."

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