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Arizona wants to watch Mexico with an army of radar towers

A state senator wants mobile radar systems to patrol US boundaries — and keep illegal immigrants out

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Bob Worsley’s first run for elected office might as well have been rigged. As the founder of SkyMall — the catalog tucked into airline passenger-seat pockets — he was wealthy enough to loan nearly $200,000 to his Republican primary campaign. He also had the advantage of an unpopular foe: his opponent, former Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, had passed one of the most controversial (and, according to the ACLU, racially motivated) immigration laws in United States history.

So when Worsley coasted to a Republican primary victory in August 2012 — and then trounced his Democrat challenger during the general election — it wasn’t much of a surprise. But once Worsley took his seat as senator for Arizona’s 25th District in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, he had a daunting task ahead of him: improving upon his predecessor’s disastrous immigration legacy.

In February, Worsley proposed his solution: a series of mobile, wide-area radar surveillance towers stretching nearly 400 miles along Arizona’s border with Mexico. The proposal is essentially a shadow border, meant to evaluate the US Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) performance — and then improve it. “My argument,” he tells me from his high-ceilinged corner office, about 20 miles east of downtown Phoenix, “is that you can’t get anywhere without securing the border once and for all.” This shadow border is his way of beginning that process, and would cost $30 million to set up.

Reactions to the proposal have been mixed. Senators in border states — and Worsley’s constituents — are listening. But no one’s clamoring to throw him money to get it started. And two big questions remain: Why is a surveillance program the best alternative to a problematic immigration law? And what makes Worsley think he can change the debate with a new kind of radar?

That anyone’s listening at all is an accomplishment for Worsley. The soft-spoken freshman senator has never worked in security or surveillance. Instead, Worsley took the fortune he made with SkyMall to start land development and renewable energy companies. Though he campaigned as a volunteer for both of Mitt Romney’s presidential bids, Worsley had no interest in entering politics until that controversial immigration law pushed him to take a stand in 2012, when he was 56 years old.

The law is SB1070, which Pearce wrote and passed in 2010. It mandated that any immigrant in the US longer than 30 days needed to carry immigration papers when they were in Arizona. The policy also required Arizona police officers, during any "lawful contact," to ask for papers if they suspected that a person might be undocumented. That meant officers were required to make racial profiling part of their day-to-day tasks, requesting papers on the slimmest of hunches. After several legal challenges, much of the law is still intact, but its impact is unclear. An Arizona Daily Star investigation found that agencies reported more immigration cases to border patrol in the year before the law was passed than the year after; it also found that arrests decreased between 2007 and 2013.

Officers were required to make racial profiling part of their day-to-day

Regardless, Worsley says the law had a huge impact on his community. A Mormon pastor in a Spanish-speaking church, he says SB1070 sent some members of his congregation fleeing. "We and the local Catholic church saw a third of our congregations disappear," Worsley says. "This all happened in less than a year after SB1070. Maybe 250,000 people, in total — they just left."

To Worsley, that exodus — which reports put closer to 100,000 — was a sobering sign. Arizona voters seemed to agree. Soon after SB1070’s passage, it was revealed that Russell Pearce had crafted much of the bill with helpful suggestions from both the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company that stood to profit from the detention of undocumented immigrants. In 2011, a recall election for Russell Pearce’s senate seat was approved after a successful local petition gathered more than 18,000 signatures. Fifteen months later, Pearce was out and Worsley was in.


Brad Solomon demonstrates the capabilities of the SpotterRF C20 wide-area surveillance system.

‘Almost too easy’

On a cloudless morning last month, I traveled to the southwestern outskirts of Tucson to see the technology Worsley is touting. Acres of desert terrain were pockmarked with Saguaro cacti and jagged rocks. Far off, a mobile-home park, the only evidence of civilization, was barely visible.

Brad Solomon and Mike Thompson met me there. Solomon is a field application engineer with SpotterRF, a Utah-based company that specializes in small radar systems. Thompson is vice president of business development and marketing with ADSS, Inc., which provides portable platforms for surveillance systems like the ones made by SpotterRF. Both companies would see a huge windfall if Worsley’s proposal gets funding; they would lead the $30 million project, and likely be tasked with ensuring the systems don’t degrade in the Arizona desert — a contract worth millions in recurring revenue. When I meet them, Solomon and Thompson are standing by a white pickup with a 4-foot-high cap on the bed. Next to the truck sits a platform with a 30-foot white tower pointing toward the sky. After some chit-chat, Solomon asks Thompson: "Wanna go take a walk?"

Thompson does, alone, out into the brush. Solomon opens the back of the truck cap to reveal two laptops connected to a pile of orange extension cords and black wires. He taps briefly on the keyboards, then explains the setup.

On top of the white tower, a high-definition video camera is mounted alongside a SpotterRF C550 sensor. The sensor — a small rectangular cube — detects movement anywhere within a 550,000-square-meter range. Worsley’s plan would stretch 300 of these along the 387 miles of Arizona’s border with Mexico.


A 30-foot mobile tower is set up for demonstration on the southwestern outskirts of Tucson, Arizona.

When Thompson is far beyond eyeshot, Solomon points to a laptop screen, showing me the feed broadcasted by the tower-mounted camera. He calls Thompson’s cellphone to make sure he’s still walking. With Thompson holding on the line, Solomon tells me, "See if you can find him."

It’s difficult. The controls to adjust the camera’s orientation are awkward and sensitive, and though I’m generally aware of Thompson’s location, it takes at least a minute to scroll the camera and find him amid the rocks and dust.

Over the phone, Solomon tells Thompson to change course. While we wait, Solomon explains that SpotterRF’s radar systems are designed for Army Rangers, who monitor their surroundings at night in Middle Eastern desert environments. The goal is not only to pick up anomalous movements in pitch blackness or inclement weather, but to have that capability in a relatively inexpensive system that’s easy to transport.

He calls Thompson back. "You still walking?"

He is. Solomon looks at me and says, "Watch this." He presses a letter on the keyboard. In an instant, the feed zooms in on Thompson, walking slowly in the distance. It takes the system about a second to do what took me a minute.

Without the SpotterRF system, he says, someone monitoring surveillance would use only their eyes — like I did in this simulation — to locate border crossers in the distance. Now imagine that procedure with hundreds of cameras installed over about 400 miles; you’d need eyes on each of those cameras, 24 hours a day, scanning for movement. Using SpotterRF, computers plugged into a central server would receive a video feed of the crosser’s presence, eliminating the need for those hundreds of sets of eyes. Solomon also says the system can differentiate human from animal movement, and other anomalies like tumbleweeds blowing across the desert border.

"You see that?" he says. "It’s almost too easy."


State Senator Bob Worsley has proposed a state-run patrolling plan that would rely on state-of-the-art mobile radar systems, covering nearly 400 miles of the US-Mexico border.

‘Our Ellis Island’

Problem is, it’s not easy at all. The technology is impressive. And with these devices and cameras in place, it’s conceivable that a person will never cross Arizona’s US–Mexico border again without Senator Worsley’s constituents — and the federal government — knowing. When the system senses movement, it’ll send notifications to border patrol and video to a central server, which would be public. (Worsley says this is integral to the project; a way to "bring the public in" to bureaucratic discussions.)

But it can be difficult to follow Worsley’s logic about why such an elaborate system is necessary in the first place.

He explains it this way: in 1986, President Ronald Reagan passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. This law made it illegal for any employer to hire an undocumented immigrant, but also provided legal immigration status for more than 3 million people. Worsley believes that a similar law needs to be passed today. But Reagan’s act didn’t stem the tide of new immigrants entering the country illegally: since 1990, their population has nearly quadrupled. If you provide a path to citizenship for the 12 million people in the country without papers, Worsley says, but the flow of undocumented immigrants continues, the US will soon be back where it is now. "We don’t want to close the border," he says. "We want to make sure people come through our Ellis Island — through our approved ports of entry."

"We want to make sure people come through our Ellis Island."

Today, 21,391 agents work for federal Border Patrol, and 18,611 of them are based in the southwest US. These agents rely on less-than-strict protocols: 30-foot-high walls near high-traffic entry points; surveillance cameras; and tips from citizens and law enforcement agencies. DHS keeps estimates on the success of these protocols and the frequency of illegal border crossings, but the numbers are questionable: a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that of 873 total miles of southwest borderland, only 129 were considered "controlled." That’s a 15 percent success rate.

Worsley’s plan with SpotterRF is to gather data — to double-check DHS’s numbers — and then work with them to agree on how the border should be monitored. Once the border is "controlled," he says, "then we can fix the bigger problems that really need to be solved."


A Department of Homeland Security truck sits at the border between Arizona and Mexico near the port of entry in Nogales, Arizona.

A failed argument

Worsley’s plan, however, strikes some as tone-deaf. "It’s not just one group of people that’s part of this situation. It’s not just politics. It’s not just numbers. It’s business, and it’s human rights, and it’s public safety, and it’s humanitarian aid," says Margi Ault-Duell, education director at BorderLinks, a Tucson-based nonprofit that arranges educational border tours. "At the end of the day, we’re talking about human beings who make the difficult decision to cross, whose lives are impacted by every decision we make about immigration policy."

Those who do cross the border, says Ault-Duell, are taking a significant risk. If someone headed north across the US–Mexico border, their primary option would be to walk at least 60 miles north, through brutal desert heat over 100 degrees, before hitting Tucson. A study released last June from the University of Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute showed that 2,238 dead bodies found in the desert had been categorized as undocumented immigrants between 1990 and 2012. "The first answer isn’t about securing the border," Ault-Duell says. "We need to first deeply understand why so many people are crossing the border and risking their lives in the first place.

"Surveillance might be able to increase the number of people who are caught. But it doesn’t go after the root causes."

Art del Cueto, president of the Border Patrol Union Local 2544, takes a similar view. He cites reports of tunnels dug underneath the border fence and helicopters flying above it. "Just because you can point out that someone’s crossing the border with your super surveillance equipment," he says, "that doesn’t mean anyone’s for sure getting caught."

"We need to first deeply understand why so many people are crossing the border."

"You want better control of the border?" del Cuerto asks rhetorically. "Hire more officers."

Whether or not that’s the right approach, there’s plenty of reason for skepticism about Worsley’s plan. After all, similar surveillance systems have failed before. In her recent book, Border Insecurity: Why Big Money, Fences, and Drones Aren’t Making Us Safer, former US Air Force officer and special agent Sylvia Longmire points to SBInet — the multibillion-dollar radar surveillance program launched in 2006 to do basically what Worsley is proposing, but with older, more expensive technology. (In 2011, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano officially killed SBInet after a billion-dollar, 28-mile prototype failed to meet expectations.) SBInet was "a program that, in theory, would bring together the brightest minds and best border technology available to create a network of surveillance platforms along the unfenced parts of the border," Longmire writes. "The program was soon commonly known as the virtual fence, and was doomed to become the most colossal failure in the history of US border security efforts."

A ‘gridlocked dance’

Last month, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill allowing Worsley’s plan to go forward — but didn’t set aside money to fund it. And US Senator John McCain has all but called Worsley’s plan a waste of time. US Congress Senate Bill 744 has set aside $8 billion dollars for "surveillance using drones, towers, and other technological means to get our border secure," he told a local television news station — meaning that Worsley’s plan could be redundant before it’s built.

Worsley is undeterred. The federal government has failed so miserably to do its job at the border, he says, that voters in his district would rather pretend it’s not doing anything.

"Many of my constituents — and state senators [in Arizona] and in Texas — just don’t trust that the federal program can do what it says it can do," Worsley tells me. He’s convinced he can bring the program’s price tag down, in part by leasing units from SpotterRF and lobbying DHS to pick up part of the tab, and plans to bring it back to his legislative colleagues for another vote next year.

"There has to be something — not qualitative, but quantitative — to prove that the border is secure. And without some state monitoring of some kind that we can afford, we will never get to an answer. And we’ll continue to dance this vitriolic, unproductive, gridlocked dance on immigration.

"I can’t sit idly by and watch that," he says. "I just can’t."

Photography by Matt Stroud.