The border security plan the Senate approved last week includes unusual language mandating the purchase of specific models of helicopters and radar equipment for deployment along the U.S.-Mexican border, providing a potential windfall worth tens of millions of dollars to top defense contractors.
The legislation would require the U.S. Border Patrol to acquire, among other items, six Northrop Grumman airborne radar systems that cost $9.3 million each, 15 Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters that average more than $17 million apiece, and eight light enforcement helicopters made by American Eurocopter that sell for about $3 million each.
The legislation also calls for 17 UH-1N helicopters made by Bell Helicopter, an older model that the company no longer manufactures.
Watchdog groups and critics said that these and other detailed requirements would create a troubling end-run around the competitive bidding process and that they are reminiscent of old-fashioned earmarks — spending items that lawmakers insert into legislation to benefit specific projects or recipients. In the past several years, Congress has had a moratorium on earmarks.
The language was included in a $46 billion border security package the Senate approved last week as part of a comprehensive immigration bill. The so-called border surge — an additional $38 billion in spending — was added in the final week of negotiations to attract more GOP support for the measure, which passed with 68 votes, including 14 from Republicans.
The legislation would spend $30 billion over the next decade to hire more than 19,000 new Border Patrol agents, an undertaking that would double the size of the force and that many immigration experts consider wasteful and unnecessary.
The measure also would devote $7.5 billion to build 350 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border and $4.5 billion to buy new border technology. The legislation would have to be fully implemented, along with electronic visa and employment verification systems, before immigrants could receive green cards.
Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who co-sponsored the plan, said the provisions were aimed at assuaging the concerns of Republicans who are wary about creating a path to citizenship without tougher border measures.
“I was just trying to work with our caucus to get as many of our guys to participate,” Hoeven said.
That approach did not win over holdouts such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who said: “Taxpayer funds should enhance border security, not provide border stimulus for contractors. Unfortunately, the Senate bill does exactly that.”
The list of equipment included in the legislation was drawn from a technological needs assessment developed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency in 2010, according to a senior Department of Homeland Security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal process. Agency staff members compiled the list at the request of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano after she stopped a virtual-fence project that was plagued by cost overruns and delays.
Border Patrol officials provided the list to congressional staffers who had asked what the agency needed to effectively control the border.
In separate interviews last week, Corker and Hoeven said they decided to add the list to the legislation to help win over GOP senators who did not trust Napolitano to carry out a border plan.
The two senators noted that the proposal would allow Napolitano to substitute equivalent brands of technology as long as she notified Congress within 60 days. “If they want to buy something better, they can,” Corker said.
But critics said that because the measure prescribes specific products, the agency probably would not seek alternatives. “Lawmakers have put their thumb on the scale for particular products and technologies and that is hard for an agency to ignore,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense, which scrutinizes federal spending.
The $4.5 billion set aside for technology would be a boon for defense contractors, who are looking for opportunities as the United States continues to reduce its presence in Afghanistan.
The parent corporations of the companies that manufacture the products listed in the bill and their employees have given nearly $11.5 million to federal candidates and campaigns since 2009, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. About half of that came from Northrop Grumman.
Neither Corker nor Hoeven has received substantial donations from the companies or the defense sector overall.
“We’re proud of our long partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and are honored they have repeatedly chosen to acquire our helicopters for their important missions,” said Ed Van Winkle, law enforcement sales manager for American Eurocopter. “We stand ready to produce and deliver additional aircraft customized to Customs and Border Protection requirements should Congress authorize and fund their procurement.”
Representatives of Northrop Grumman, Sikorsky and Bell declined to comment.
Most of the equipment required by the legislation is identified by category, not by brand. Among other items, the bill calls for 4,595 unattended ground sensors, 104 radiation isotope identification devices and 53 fiber-optic tank inspection scopes — and specifies how many should be deployed in each Border Patrol sector. It also requires the purchase of four new drones, on top of 10 unmanned aircraft that the Border Patrol already owns.
The items listed by name were identified that way on the border agency’s wish list, according to Senate staff members involved in drafting the plan, who discussed the process on the condition of anonymity. They said the proposal would not override contracting rules that require competitive bidding.
But government watchdogs said it would be difficult to have an open bidding process for equipment identified by brand and model.
“The agency is statutorily required to buy the specific items from the listed vendors,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, an independent group that works to expose overspending and corruption. “I’m unsure how an agency could hold a competition.”
One big-ticket item on the list is the VADER radar system, an airborne technology operated from drones that Northrop Grumman developed for the Pentagon’s research arm. The Border Patrol has been testing one of the systems on loan from the Defense Department to detect migrants attempting to cross the border illegally, officials said. This year, the agency received $18.6 million to buy two of the radar systems , and the immigration bill would add six more.
The Black Hawk helicopters required under the plan include five of the latest high-tech models with digital cockpits. As for the American Eurocopter aircraft, the patrol would be required to add eight AS-350 models to the 85 it already has in its fleet.
The legislation spells out how new border patrol agents would be deployed, requiring the agency to assign 38,405 officers to the U.S.-Mexican border by Sept. 30, 2021.
The Border Patrol employs a record 21,000 agents, up from about 10,000 in 2004. In its most recent budget request, the department did not seek new agents.
Many experts on border security say that doubling the force is impractical and a poor use of resources and that the money could be better spent on workplace inspections or the E-Verify system that employers can use to check the citizenship of applicants.
“There is a lot in this border security plan that is fighting the last war,” said Doris Meissner, who was a top Clinton administration immigration official.
Homeland Security officials are confident that they can recruit and train the surge of agents required under the bill. Spokesman Peter Boogaard said the measure would “build on this administration’s historic border security gains.”
Hoeven and Corker said they settled on hiring 20,000 agents in large part because the number fell midway between proposals from other GOP senators.
“I wish I could tell you it was scientific,” Corker said, adding, “We felt like this was something that would get the job done.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.