Surveillance tower raises suspicion in border town

A truck carries immigrants through Sasabe, Mexico on the way to a drop-off spot to cross the border into Arivaca. A truck carries immigrants through Sasabe, Mexico on the way to a drop-off spot to cross the border into Arivaca. Gregory Bull/AP
ARIVACA, ARIZ. -- Residents of this small town held a meeting Wednesday with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union to discuss whether they can legally force the Homeland Security Department to remove a high-tech tower that is part of a virtual fence to slow the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico.

Many Arivacans are concerned that the tower -- equipped with long-range video cameras, radar and night-vision equipment to spot and track illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border 12 miles away -- threatens their privacy.

Arivaca resident Mary Scott said the idea that images from the tower are fed into a Customs and Border Patrol command center 75 miles away in Tucson, where government workers can watch, is "oppressive" to her.

Another resident, Philip Benoit, said he wants the town of about 1,500 to file an injunction to stop DHS from operating the tower and its linked computer systems because the network could spy on residents. "I don't want to be a blip on a radar screen," Benoit said.

The tower, located just south of the center of Arivaca, is one of nine 98-foot structures government contractor Boeing completed last month to monitor 28 miles of border. Once completed, the system, called the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet), will encompass 1,800 towers housing infrared cameras, radar and communication equipment along almost the entire U.S.-Mexican border. The system is estimated to cost $2.5 billion, but could run as much as $30 billion, according to a DHS inspector general report.

Among Arivaca residents, suspicions of the effort run deep and feed conspiracy theories. Peter Ragan, a building contractor, said that hills and mountains to the south of town block the view the cameras and radar have of the border, and that they are in fact "most effective" when looking at the town.

Residents said that at meetings this spring representatives from DHS and Boeing didn't provide technical details of the tower systems. Ragan said that Boeing representatives deflected questions by saying such information was either proprietary or was related to national security. Scott asked the ACLU lawyers for help in obtaining more details.

Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of ACLU of Arizona, said the towers being installed by DHS represent "the increased militarization of the border," as well as the proliferation of video surveillance systems in all kinds of public venues with little or no policy governing their use.

While some residents want the ACLU to pursue litigation to have the tower here moved, Meetze said that is sometimes not the best approach. She suggested residents use the political process and advocacy groups to work to have the tower moved. Meetze added that the ACLU would file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain technical details of the tower systems.

Brad Benson, a DHS spokesman, suggested that instead of filing such an official request, the ACLU simply should ask him for the technical details, and he would work to provide the information. "If this is public information, why not give it to them," he said.

If the ACLU is not satisfied with the response, Benson said, the group could then file a FOIA. He said that even though the tower here is located miles from the border, it is part of a "defense in depth strategy" to track illegal immigrants as they make their way from the border north toward Arivaca. He said the tower was not designed to conduct surveillance of Arivaca or its residents.

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