‘A partner that never sleeps’: Surveillance towers extend Border Patrol’s California reach

The federal government is investing millions on border surveillance towers, while migrants in California face harsh conditions and delays in processing.
Migrants stay in a makeshift camp in Jacumba Hot Springs in San Diego on Nov. 18, 2023. Photo Credit: Adriana Heldiz / CalMatters

Wendy Fry

As California grapples with how much in state funds it should be spending on migrant humanitarian aid at its southern border, the U.S. federal government is pouring money into expanding its already extensive surveillance capabilities there.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection plans to spend about $67.8 million acquiring 277 new surveillance towers and upgrading 191 existing towers along the entire 2,000-mile-long border over the next 14 years, the most recent federal contracts show. The agency has received more than $700 million in funding for surveillance since fiscal year 2017, according to a 2021 report by the Office of Inspector General.

The spending comes as the Biden Administration is facing increased political pressure — from leaders in the Republican and Democratic parties — to take action at the border after illegal crossings soared to record highs last year. Border advocates are urging the state and federal governments to spend more on humanitarian aid, but state officials say they can’t afford to while facing a budget deficit.

Privacy and human rights advocates also are asking for more transparency about the capabilities of the towers and are questioning why so much money is going toward monitoring migrants. Some of the towers can track movement miles away.

Customs and Border Protection says the surveillance equipment is necessary to monitor remote, rugged areas like Jacumba Hot Springs and the Otay Mountain Wilderness in San Diego County, which are increasingly becoming destinations for migrants from around the world to cross into the United States.

In recent weeks, dozens of migrants at a time have waited in makeshift camps in California — enduring the barren desert with little food, water or shelter — for hours or sometimes a day or more. Border Patrol says capacity and personnel restraints at its facilities can cause delays in processing.

Customs and Border Protection did not respond to CalMatters’ request for comment. The Department of Homeland Security, its parent organization, says the equipment is necessary to detect illegal crossings, keep up with smugglers’ movements and protect the safety of Border Patrol agents.

The Department of Homeland Security “has also acknowledged the need for better coordination, communication, and oversight,” it said in its 2021 report on its border technology.

Activists say they are concerned with the militarization of California’s border, especially because the state already has one of the most heavily-equipped sections of the U.S. southern border.

Border patrol’s tech

The area near the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego County has two border walls — a primary and secondary fence — as well as drones, Border Patrol agents patrolling on ATVs, and high-tech autonomous surveillance towers, many built by the defense company Anduril. Billionaire inventor Palmer Luckey founded the Costa Mesa-based tech company with backing from Republican mega-donor Peter Thiel.

Customs and Border Protection also awarded contracts for surveillance equipment to General Dynamics, Advanced Technology Systems Company, and Elbit America.

San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for digital privacy, has been tracking the rapid expansion of installations of Anduril and other towers in the remote regions of eastern San Diego and Imperial counties.

“That’s where we’ve seen a huge number of these towers go up,” said Dave Maass, the nonprofit’s director of investigations. The foundation has built an interactive map tracking border surveillance from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas. A few dozen more recently discovered towers in Texas will be added to the map over the next couple of weeks, he said.

Powered by solar panels, the autonomous surveillance towers can detect humans from a mile and a half away and operate around the clock. Customs and Border Protection describes them on its website as “a partner that never sleeps, never needs to take a coffee break, never even blinks.”

Using an artificial intelligence system, the towers can autonomously identify and track “objects of interest,” such as humans or vehicles.

According to an Anduril promotional video, the system alerts border agents on their devices when it detects an object and shows them an image highlighting the item. In the San Diego area, border agents have been telling migrants who are waiting to be processed in open-air detention areas that the system will detect anyone who tries to walk away, advocates say.

Anduril did not respond to a request for comment.

Privacy issues

Privacy and human rights advocates say the towers pick up more than just the movement of migrants; some are pointed directly into residents’ backyards. Advocates said they’re concerned about the potential monitoring of some 7.3 million people who live on both sides of the 150-mile international border between California and Baja California.

“These towers aren’t checking people’s papers,” Maass said. “People have lived on the border longer than the United States has been a country. Just being somebody who lives on the border, whose family are on both sides of the border, doesn’t make you a criminal and shouldn’t put you under suspicion.”

An Anduril official said in its promotion video that its autonomous towers on private property can be programmed to exclude a person’s home or farm from monitoring.

But advocates remain skeptical.

“The towers deployed in California have 360-degree, AI-fueled visual and auditory surveillance capabilities,” said Erika Pinheiro, executive director of Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit that provides legal and humanitarian support to refugees, deportees, and other migrants in the U.S. and Tijuana.

“If they wanted to, the government could track the movements of any individual living on the California border,” Pinheiro said.

In recent years, Customs and Border Protection has requested to install border surveillance equipment in areas away from the border. At least one state agency, the California Coastal Commission, has approved Customs and Border Protection’s request to erect temporary surveillance towers in Del Mar, an affluent coastal town about 35 miles away from the border, and on the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County, about 295 miles from the San Ysidro border crossing. The agency noted those towers were “intended to detect and track illegal border activities.”

Other advocates noted that migrants sometimes huddle under the towers for protection from the elements, while nonprofits are the only groups providing food, water and blankets amid dropping temperatures. Currently there is no governmental aid — federal, state or local — for those stuck in the open-air sites.

Technology cost

The Department of Homeland Security has a budget of $103.2 billion, with an extra $4.7 billion in a Southwest border contingency fund, for fiscal 2024.

“There’s just such a lack of accountability with those billions of dollars,” said Pinheiro.

On a recent episode of The Border Chronicles podcast, Pinheiro questioned how some $1.4 billion allocated by the federal government to border agencies at the end of Title 42 was spent. That pandemic-era policy, which ended in May 2023, allowed U.S. border authorities to send asylum-seekers back across the border because of a public health emergency. Authorities had expected large numbers of people to cross when the emergency policy ended, but that did not immediately happen.

“We saw this too under the Trump administration,” Pinheiro said. “When additional funding was allocated for humanitarian support, diapers and formula and things to help the families crossing the border, we saw that Border Patrol spent that money on ATV’s and other surveillance toys that they deployed on the border.

 “Where is this money going, if we have babies sitting out in the desert for up to a week at a time without any food or water?” she asked.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has said California cannot continue providing the same level of humanitarian services for the coming fiscal year that it has in the past along the border, not while it is facing a $38 billion budget shortfall.

The state allocated $150 million for the fiscal year ending this June for sheltering services for migrants. That money is “fully committed” for the year, a spokesman said.

“California’s investment to assist the federal government, provide humanitarian services, and help new arrivals totals over $1.3 billion since 2019,” Newsom’s office said earlier this month. “California cannot maintain its efforts without federal support and has continued to advocate to Congress to provide federal funding to local communities that are receiving new arrivals.”