Reuters – 2004-06-29 09:10:58
LOS ANGELES (June 25, 2004) — Two aerial drones were assigned to Arizona border patrol on Friday in an unprecedented drive to secure a 350-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexican border that has become the most popular and deadliest corridor for illegal immigrants.
The two unmanned and unarmed aerial vehicles, piloted remotely, can fly up to 90 mph, detect movement 15 miles away and can transmit live pictures day and night of vast stretches of desert and grasslands traversed by more than 1,000 undocumented immigrants a day.
Border patrol officials at an Arizona news conference said the two drones were the first to be deployed on the U.S. border.
The Israeli-made drones are part of a Department of Homeland Security initiative to arrest and sometimes rescue mostly Mexican immigrants, many of whom die in their bid to seek a higher standard of living in the United States.
Temperatures out in the Sonoran desert soar to above 40 degrees (104F) for much of the summer. Border officials said 61 people had died since October in the Tucson sector of the border, 17 of them because of the heat. Others die in traffic accidents often caused by immigrant smugglers trying to outrun police and border agents.
The drones are the most sophisticated hardware in an array of sky-watch towers, ground sensors, cameras, and mobile scope trucks already used by some 2,000 Arizona border agents.
But hours are wasted by guards driving miles through scrubland sometimes to find that a sensor has been triggered by cattle or that the immigrants have moved on.
Border officials say arrests of undocumented immigrants in Arizona have increased substantially in the past year. Some 71,000 were arrested in March.
Some appear to have been encouraged by a White House proposal in January to grant three-year renewable work permits to millions of foreign workers and enable illegal immigrants currently in the United States to gain temporary legal status.
The union representing Border Patrol agents in February reported an estimated 10 percent to 11 percent increase in illegal crossings since President Bush announced the plan. Many illegals apparently believed they would eventually be granted an amnesty.
The Arizona drone plan got a mixed reception from the Mexican government migrant welfare group Grupo Beta in Agua Prieta, just south of the Arizona border.
“We think it’s positive from the point of view of protecting migrants who get into trouble in the desert, as it won’t take the border patrol so long to locate them and carry out a rescue,” Berta Alicia de La Rosa told Reuters.
“Nevertheless, any measure to boost vigilance along the border carries risk with it as migrants will look for ever more remote places to cross in order to avoid detection, such as the deserts of New Mexico where the distances between populated areas are even greater,” she added.
The Hermes 450 drones are made by Israeli company Elbit Systems. Unlike the Predator combat drones used in recent years by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Yemen to target suspected al-Qaeda operatives, those used by the Arizona border patrol will not carry any weaponry.